The Boxer and the Batterer

Career Arc: Manny Pacquiao

Elias Stein

True Grit

Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, and Bryce Petty all boast thrilling potential and heartburn-inducing flaws. So how should talent evaluators grade them before Thursday’s NFL draft? A six-pronged formula (plus one secret ingredient) can provide the clarity we seek.

Heading into the 1997 NFL draft, quarterback prospect Jim Druckenmiller had scouts drooling. Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh, who was serving as a consultant to the 49ers at the time, referred to the 6-foot-5, 235-pound, howitzer-armed passer as a “can’t-miss” player whose “physical attributes cannot be denied.” Walsh viewed Druckenmiller as the “take-charge type of guy you want to be your leader at quarterback,” while awestruck scouts recounted stories about Druckenmiller beating out his Virginia Tech linemen in a keg-throwing contest — after helping them drink the beer. Druckenmiller appeared to be everything an NFL team would want in a QB prospect, and the 49ers acted accordingly, selecting him in the first round, 26th overall, to be Steve Young’s heir apparent.

The problem? Druckenmiller was dreadful. He never grasped the nuances of the 49ers offense, completing a measly 40.4 percent of his passes for a dismal 29.2 passer rating as a rookie. Head coach Steve Mariucci didn’t let Druckenmiller throw a single pass the following season, and after some sordid legal troubles for the QB, San Francisco dealt him to Miami for a song before the 1999 season. Druckenmiller never saw game action in Miami, and he then spent several years bouncing around the XFL and Arena Football League (as a backup!) before finally settling into a job in sales.

While Druckenmiller may be a cautionary tale, however, he isn’t a unique one. Drafting an NFL quarterback is risky business, and the lesson of Druckenmiller’s story and others like it is that no one truly knows which players will succeed in the pros. Even the brightest GMs and coaches can whiff badly: By nearly any measure, fewer than 50 percent of passers drafted in the first round wind up as quality NFL starters, while fewer than 20 percent become stars. The odds are even worse after the first round, with Tom Brady and Russell Wilson serving as rare exceptions that prove the rule.

Yet there’s no question that teams must continue drafting quarterbacks; the position remains the most important on the field, and since it’s nearly impossible to find a franchise QB via free agency, teams are forced to keep braving the murky waters of the prospect pool. The question is how clubs can get better at drafting quarterbacks. Fortunately, research on improving decision-making in unpredictable circumstances can help us craft a formula for evaluating quarterback prospects in general, and the 2015 crop of Bryce Petty, Brett Hundley, Marcus Mariota, and Jameis Winston in particular.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman concludes that in situations where the odds of success are poor, holistic gut intuitions are most likely to fail, meaning decision-making can benefit most from a guiding formula. And since drafting quarterbacks fits the mold of the low-success enterprises Kahneman describes, it stands to reason that NFL teams would benefit from following a decision-making formula. But what kind of formula? Predicting whether a prospect will be a successful pro requires assessing a variety of tangible and intangible factors; one can’t simply point to a high collegiate completion percentage and deduce that the passer who posted it will be a star in the NFL. Relying on advanced analytics can also prove problematic, as Kahneman notes that in unpredictable environments, “complex statistical algorithms” often “add little or no value” over “simple equally weighted formulas based on existing statistics or on common sense.”

There are many examples of back-of-the-envelope formulas dramatically improving decision-making,1 and Kahneman himself developed a simple formula to help the Israeli Defense Forces predict the future success of combat recruits. Before his intervention, the Israeli military’s evaluations were based on general impressions and the results were, according to Kahneman, “completely useless.” Drawing on his research, he developed a six-factor evaluation process using flexible criteria like “responsibility” and “sociability,” and the IDF still uses a slightly modified version of this method.

To build a similarly rigorous but flexible model for evaluating quarterbacks, I’ve followed Kahneman’s advice to first select “a few traits that are prerequisites for success in this position (technical proficiency, engaging personality, reliability, and so on). Don’t overdo it — six dimensions is a good number.” I spoke to various talent evaluators, scouts, coaches, and former players to get their take on which factors I should include, and settled on these six:

Accuracy: A quarterback who is not consistently accurate will never be able to survive in the NFL. While most top-tier college QBs rarely sail or one-hop throws to receivers, accuracy in the NFL is often a matter of inches, not feet.

• Arm Strength/Velocity: Evaluators should care very little about whether a QB can throw a ball 60 or 75 yards, but a great deal about whether he can throw a pass 30 yards on a line to the opposite sideline before a defender arrives. NFL defenses are fast and savvy, and while deep throws matter, the best way to stretch defenses is to make them guard the seams and deep outs in the 18-to-25-yard range.

• Anticipation/Timing: These concepts aren’t the same, but they are related. Anticipation refers to a quarterback’s innate ability to anticipate when receivers will be open and “to throw them open”; timing refers to his ability to precisely sync up his footwork and release with the receiver’s break. In other words, anticipation is what slingers hone in the backyard, while timing is what they perfect in practice drills. Great QBs possess both traits, but a passer who’s strong in one area can compensate for weakness in the other.

 Decision-making: Simply put, does the quarterback dependably know where to go with the ball, and does he avoid the killer mistake? Good decision-making requires knowledge and the ability to quickly process information while under fire, and it’s not enough to make the right decision some of the time: If the passer does the right thing four out of five times but throws a brutal pick-six on the fifth attempt, the mistake will mask the successes.

 Pocket Presence: All quarterbacks are less effective under pressure; the key is whether a given passer can hang in the pocket and hit open receivers or loses the ability to function when that pressure hits. Unlike college players, NFL quarterbacks rarely throw from an entirely clean pocket, so remaining poised is essential. And toughness means little if accuracy and decision-making falter under duress.

 Functional Athleticism: This is not the same as raw athleticism. A QB’s 40-yard dash time and max bench-press numbers matter far less than the athleticism he displays while doing QB things: Can he escape the pocket to avoid the rush and extend plays? Does he have the agility necessary to shuffle within the pocket? Is he big and bulky enough to brush off pass-rushers and withstand NFL punishment?

Kahneman recommends scoring each trait on a simple 1-5 scale, so for my purposes, a 1 represents a sub-NFL level and a 5 represents a truly exceptional ability for a prospect.2 While most NFL teams already use some sort of grading system, my hope is that by streamlining the process and forcing rigorous scoring for all six traits, the final judgments will be more accurate than what our guts would have led us to believe absent any formula.

I decided to use this formula to evaluate Petty, Hundley, Mariota, and Winston because I think they’re the four most gifted quarterback prospects in this draft. That doesn’t mean they are or will be the four best quarterbacks, but they’re fascinating case studies because they each have thrilling potential and heartburn-generating flaws. Let’s break them down.

The Arm: Bryce Petty

bryce-petty-qb-draft-evaluationBrett Deering/Getty Images

The first thing that jumps out about the former Baylor star is that he throws a pretty ball. The second thing is his sturdy 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame. But watching Bears tape leads to another noteworthy observation: Though Baylor’s offense is typically lumped in with other uptempo spread attacks, the Bears don’t bubble-screen teams to death. Instead, head coach Art Briles, fueled by his Texas gunslinger mentality, emphasizes the vertical passing game, which resulted in 52 and 48 points per game the last two seasons behind lethal play from Petty.

PettyDeepBall

Still, as potent as Baylor’s offense was, skeptics rightly note that Petty was rarely asked to showcase the quality that separates successful NFL starters from backups and busts: the ability to complete passes in tight windows when everyone in the stadium knows a throw is coming. It’s not that Petty never did this, but the sample is small.

That doesn’t mean that what Briles asked Petty to do was easy, however. Almost every play in Baylor’s arsenal is a packaged play, meaning Petty had to decide, based on the defense’s reaction, and often after the snap, whether the Bears would run, employ a quick screen, or throw downfield. Consider the below GIF, in which Petty threw a touchdown pass to Corey Coleman to cap a furious 21-point fourth-quarter comeback and tie the game against TCU. Petty had three options: (1) hand off to the running back, (2) throw a receiver screen to the right if the defense was out of position, or (3) throw to the receiver to his left if the defense played the run. Petty saw the safety crash for the run and let it rip:

BaylorPackaged

These packaged plays are no longer college-only tactics, but are now used by a variety of NFL teams, including the Steelers, Eagles, Broncos, and Chargers. In the Super Bowl, New England ran an extremely similar packaged play three times, combining an inside power run with a slant concept:

Pats Packaged

Of course, even if Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger are running the sorts of plays that Petty excelled at in college, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Petty will be able to do what Brady, Rivers, and Roethlisberger have built careers on: reading, manipulating, and dissecting defenses geared to stop them. Petty can get there, but he’ll need time to learn what will almost certainly be a different approach to offensive football.3 And since we don’t know how his decision-making and anticipation/timing will translate in the pros, we have to dock him points in those areas.

My final concern is Petty’s pocket presence, which is ultimately more important than the offense in which he played. There’s no questioning Petty’s toughness (he played most of last season with cracked bones in his spine), but when opponents generated pressure, his mechanics and accuracy went off-kilter. This happened in his 7-for-22 performance against Texas last season, and again against West Virginia, when, a year after dropping 73 points and 864 (!) yards on WVU, Petty struggled against the Mountaineers’ all-out blitzes in a loss that ultimately kept the Bears out of the College Football Playoff. WVU repeatedly sacked, hit, and harassed Petty, and in response, he overthrew and flat-out missed open receivers. When WVU backed out of its blitzes and dropped into coverage, Petty seemed to see ghosts and rushed his throws.

While some of the blame for the WVU loss belongs to Baylor’s coaches, who seemed to have no answer to WVU’s blitzes other than difficult fade passes, there’s no denying that this was ugly film for Petty. If the pocket presence woes he displayed in this loss prove ingrained rather than isolated, it won’t matter what offense he runs in the NFL.

Bryce Petty
Accuracy 3
Arm Strength/Velocity 4
Anticipation/Timing 3
Decision-making 3
Pocket Presence 2
Functional Athleticism 3
Total 18

The Project: Brett Hundley

brett-hundley-nfl-draft-evaluationBo Rader/Getty Images

Hundley couldn’t have managed a better start at UCLA: He scored on his first play, a 72-yard touchdown run in a 49-24 win over Rice, then followed that up the next week with his first 300-yard passing day in a win over a ranked Nebraska team. For the 6-foot-3, 230-pound freshman with wheels and a cannon for an arm, the sky looked like the limit.

Then the inconsistency began. A few weeks after the Nebraska game, Hundley threw four interceptions in a 43-17 loss to Cal, and it was much the same story for the rest of his three seasons, with Hundley never stringing together extended stretches of precision play without making head-scratching mistakes. His UCLA career produced a number of beautiful throws and plenty of instances of patiently cycling through receivers. Unfortunately, it also brought far too much of this:

HundleyINT

While Hundley’s physical traits are considerable, his intangibles are tougher to evaluate. Complicating the analysis is the offense he ran at UCLA under coordinator Noel Mazzone. The Bruins’ well-designed attack is all about keeping things simple for the quarterback while allowing him to get the ball to playmakers in space. As with Baylor, almost every play in UCLA’s arsenal is a packaged play in which Hundley had the option to hand off, throw, or keep the ball. Unlike the Bears’ go-for-the-jugular offense, however, UCLA’s attack featured mostly horizontal options: screens packaged with other screens, and maybe a run packaged with a quick outside throw.

That’s why Hundley threw a staggering 33 percent of his college passes behind the line of scrimmage. (By contrast, that figure is 16.4 percent for Winston and 18.8 percent for Mariota.) When Mazzone gave Hundley downfield options on packaged plays, the result was often very pretty in terms of offensive scheme …4

HundleyPackaged

… but that doesn’t tell us much about Hundley’s ability to process coverage or handle a collapsing pocket. While watching three seasons’ worth of Hundley’s games, I kept waiting for UCLA to take the training wheels off and let this future NFL signal-caller do more, but I also wondered if the offense didn’t grow with Hundley because his coaches didn’t trust him, and after the season UCLA head coach Jim Mora said as much.

In short, Hundley is actually the quarterback prospect that many people think Mariota is: He’s immensely talented, but very raw, and he’ll need coaching and patience before he’s ready for prime time. Hundley needs even more work than Petty, but he also has more upside.

Brett Hundley
Accuracy 3
Arm strength/Velocity 4
Anticipation/Timing 2
Decision-making 2
Pocket Poise 2
Functional Athleticism 4
Total 17

The Machine: Marcus Mariota

marcus-mariota-nfl-draft-evaluationKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The knock on Mariota is that his immense college production stemmed from the crafty design of Oregon’s offense more than from his own ability — that he was that dreaded animal, the “system quarterback.” But all quarterbacks benefit from their offensive system, so assigning that label is lazy analysis. A QB prospect’s college system should merely be another factor in the evaluation, just like the quality of his competition or his supporting cast.

To a certain extent, I understand the concern with Mariota. While Aaron Rodgers benefits from the offensive scheme he plays in, his dynamic, fluid style clearly transcends it. Meanwhile, Oregon QBs all tend to look alike as they mechanistically execute the Ducks offense, producing gaudy numbers while displaying the same footwork and techniques and throwing to the same blissfully open receivers. Dennis Dixon, Jeremiah Masoli, and Darron Thomas all had their moments, but with all due respect, no NFL team is going to be excited about drafting the Hawaiian Darron Thomas.

Of course, Mariota is much more than that. There’s no question that he’s far more physically gifted than his Ducks predecessors, but more importantly, he began shaping Oregon’s offense to himself over time rather than the other way around. Oregon actually used a variety of pro-style pass concepts during Mariota’s tenure, and while Winston typically delivered 35 to 40 plays per game that — good, bad, or ugly — translated to the NFL for evaluation purposes, Mariota had at least 15 and sometimes as many as 30. Hundley often had as few as five.

The reason that Oregon increasingly relied on Mariota’s ability to drop back, read defenses, and hit open receivers — he averaged nearly 100 more yards per game passing in 2014 than he did in 2012 — is because he’s a skilled passer. Mariota has always excelled at finding receivers later in his progression, dating as far back as the Fiesta Bowl against Kansas State in his redshirt freshman season, when he hit his fifth read for a touchdown on the Y-Cross pass concept:

Mariota5thRead

And while Mariota’s throwing motion features some correctable mechanical issues, his completion percentage on throws that traveled between 11 and 20 yards was actually much better than Winston’s. The real key to Mariota’s development, though, is how he grew to consistently hit his receivers on time. In the play below, Mariota moved the safety with his eyes, stepped up in the pocket, and delivered a laser, which is exactly what he’ll have to do at the next level:

MariotaSeam

What concerns me about Mariota is his pocket presence. His issues aren’t fatal, as he scores better than Petty and Hundley on this measure, but he’s clearly behind Winston. Too often, Mariota slid into the rush or failed to stay balanced enough to make a throw while under pressure. And though his touchdown-to-interception ratio was incredibly low, he fumbled 27 times in three seasons, a liability he’ll have to clean up if he wants to win games in the NFL. (Winston fumbled 13 times in two seasons.) As with Petty, pocket presence is my biggest question mark here not because Mariota can’t improve his poise, but because his numerous other skills won’t matter if he doesn’t.

That’s the doomsday scenario, but the best-case scenario is as bright as that is bleak. I’m not big on player comparisons, but sometimes the right one brings clarity, and the player I can’t help but come back to when evaluating Mariota is another system QB who came out of college with both great production and a heavily coached, mechanical style: Aaron Rodgers. Both players are excellent athletes, and just as Rodgers did, Mariota will need time to develop. The young Rodgers remade his game while sitting on the bench, evolving beyond the robotic but sound fundamentals he learned from his college coach, Jeff Tedford, and mastering the nuances of Mike McCarthy’s West Coast offense. I don’t think Mariota will be ready to start for an NFL team on day one, because few if any quarterbacks are. But he has the potential to be special.

Marcus Mariota
Accuracy 4
Arm strength/Velocity 4
Anticipation/Timing 3
Decision-making 4
Pocket Poise 3
Functional Athleticism 4
Total 22

The Savant: Jameis Winston

jameis-winston-nfl-draft-evaluationStephen Dunn/Getty Images

When Winston arrived at Florida State, he already had a reputation as a football junkie. By age 12, Winston knew how to break down coverages, and after he narrowly chose Florida State over Stanford, several NFL scouts told me he was a future no. 1 overall pick.

He didn’t disappoint when he started taking snaps, eviscerating Pittsburgh in his first collegiate game by completing an obscene 92.6 percent of his passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-13 victory. He won the 2013 Heisman Trophy after posting the fifth-highest pass efficiency rating in college football history, and he capped off that season by leading his undefeated team to the national championship. Winston managed to take an FSU offense that had previously operated under eventual first-round draft pick EJ Manuel and improve it in every conceivable way. He has rare skills.

“Quarterbacking gets down to two things … decision-making and accuracy,” said Jimbo Fisher, Winston’s college coach, at a 2014 coaching clinic. “Jameis Winston is unbelievably intelligent when processing information, and he can make very accurate throws.”

Winston also has excellent pocket presence. Stanford head coach David Shaw has praised Winston’s ability to operate in a “muddy pocket,” and Winston’s game film shows numerous examples of him standing true and firing completions as defenders bore down on him:

JameisGoodPressure

Under Fisher, Winston enjoyed the most straightforwardly pro-style training of any of these QB prospects. “I do not know where the ball is going, but I have taught one man to make that decision. Who is that one man? That is the quarterback,” explained Fisher at the clinic. “I teach the quarterback where to throw the ball against whatever coverage the defense shows up in. The other 10 guys just play. You just have to teach one player what you want. Find that guy, and it becomes a lot easier.”

Winston didn’t stop at reading coverages; he was also responsible for sophisticated run-game audibles and protection checks:

Of course, Winston has his flaws. His off-field issues have been well documented, and his test results at the NFL combine were borderline abysmal, generating comparables that include athletic luminaries like Tom Savage, Dan Orlovsky, and Curtis Painter.5

Winston’s game doesn’t involve scrambling, and he shows more nimbleness on film than his combine results indicate, but his subpar athletic testing concerns me given the sloppiness of his footwork. The biggest on-field concern, however, is the 18 interceptions Winston threw in 2014. Some have cited miscommunication with FSU’s young receivers, while others have credited Winston for squeezing throws into tight coverage, and there’s some truth to both of those things. Still, the most basic reason for Winston’s picks is a depressingly simple one — he frequently threw the ball directly to an underneath defender he failed to see:

JameisPick

While Shaw and others have praised Winston’s composure and decision-making, the QB’s judgment seemed to periodically lapse in 2014; I’d bench a high school quarterback who did what Winston did here against Notre Dame:

JameisPanic v ND

Despite these mistakes, though, Winston remains a tremendous talent, and his on-field traits grade out better than every other quarterback prospect.

Jameis Winston
Accuracy 4
Arm strength/Velocity 4
Anticipation/Timing 4
Decision-making 4
Pocket Poise 4
Functional Athleticism 3
Total 23

Here is a head-to-head look at my scores for Hundley, Petty, Mariota, and Winston, with the players grading out into two tiers; Winston and Mariota are in the upper crust, and Petty and Hundley are just below:

Name Jameis Winston Marcus Mariota Bryce Petty Brett Hundley
Accuracy 4 4 3 3
Arm Strength/Velocity 4 4 4 4
Anticipation/Timing 4 3 3 2
Decision-making 4 4 3 2
Pocket Poise 4 3 2 2
Functional Athleticism 3 4 3 4
Total 23 22 18 17

When the on-field evaluations are as close as they are in this case, there’s another factor I turn to, though it’s not one that can really be measured: grit. I don’t mean grit in the PFTCommenter sense of scrappiness or even on-field toughness, but rather the sense used in education research to show that grit, even more than IQ, is the best predictor of future success for children. This notion of grit, developed by Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania and popularized by Paul Tough in his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, is a measure of a confluence of traits necessary for attaining difficult, complex goals: self-control, commitment, persistence, conscientiousness, resilience, and passion.6

This is why teams rightfully spend countless hours digging for clues that provide a glimpse into a player’s mental makeup. “With any pick, at any position, I think you’ll find a success rate or failure rate,” Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht explained last week. “Usually teams, and scouts, and GMs, and coaches, if they make mistakes it’s not from talent, it’s from above the shoulders. You want to make sure you’re getting the right person.”

Bill Parcells used to say that pro football “is not for the well adjusted.” It takes an exceptionally driven person to succeed as an NFL quarterback, and even for those sorts, there are many pitfalls along the way to glory. Leveling a final judgment on the characters of a few 21-year-olds is fraught with risk, though I’ve spoken to enough coaches and players about Winston and Mariota to get a sense of what both of them would be like as pros. And while Winston’s score just edges Mariota’s, I’d prefer to pick the passer whom I trust most to spend countless hours mastering his craft and to avoid doing anything on or off the field to jeopardize his future. I’d pick the quarterback with the most grit. I’d pick Marcus Mariota. 

Filed Under: 2015 NFL Draft, NFL, NFL Draft, Quarterbacks, Rookie quarterbacks, Quarterback Prospects, Jameis Winston, Jameis Winston Scandal, Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Bryce Petty, Florida State Seminoles, Oregon Ducks, UCLA Bruins, Baylor Bears, Jimbo Fisher, Jim Mora, Art Briles, Football, College Football, NCAA, NCAAF, Smart Football, Chris B. Brown

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Chris B. Brown is a contributing writer for Grantland and the editor of the website Smart Football. His latest book is The Art of Smart Football.

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