In the world of NFL hopes and dreams - a world in which fans of horrid professional football teams fondly recall glory years past, and not-so-silently yearn for a return to gridiron greatness - it's a rare occasion, indeed, that a redshirt sophomore quarterback is the protagonist in prophecies of forthcoming dominance.
"We can turn this franchise around if we can get Andrew Luck in the 2011 NFL Draft."
That's the position that Luck, 21, finds himself in - even though he's only in his second season as the starting quarterback of the Stanford Cardinal. There is nothing flashy or high-profile about Luck. Right now, we're talking about a relatively inexperienced player that has only made 21 starts at the Division I level. He has yet to play in a bowl game. For all of the tremendous buzz that he has generated in just under two years as a starting quarterback, there is still plenty about his game that can be improved upon. Most importantly, no one's even sure if he'll make himself available to pro teams next year.
Why, then, is this Texas native such a sought-after NFL Draft prospect? It's not his athletic prowess, which while exemplary in many cases and merely acceptable in others (such as arm strength) is hardly extraordinary when considering the overall package. It's not even his production, really; he is a productive player, certainly, but his numbers pale in comparison to, say, those of Arkansas star Ryan Mallett - another 2011 NFL Draft prospect that is not nearly as buzz-worthy as the Stanford product.
Make no mistake: Luck is a rare prospect. He possesses qualities that few college quarterbacks have as they leave the amateur ranks, and even fewer manage to develop once they're professionals. These qualities - commonly wrapped up into one tidy, incredibly difficult-to-define term called "intangibles" - are what will make Luck such a coveted draft day commodity. We're going to try to do our best to define some of those qualities for you.
Poise: Luck is an incredibly poised player - so poised, in fact, that he makes Mark Sanchez look positively terrified on the football field. Says Dan Kadar, who covers all things NFL Draft for SB Nation at his blog, Mocking the Draft: "For a redshirt sophomore, Luck's poise is uncanny. Poise helps Luck command his huddle. It allows him to step up to the line of scrimmage, shift his players around and call audibles. It's something you don't see in most collegiate seniors, let alone redshirt sophomores.
"Poise isn't just about leading a huddle or calling audibles," Kadar continues. "It's about being cool. It's about having a swagger and a confidence."
Luck's coach at Stanford, former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh, sees similar qualities, wrapped up in a healthy dose of humility. "He has a good mix of humility and confidence," Harbaugh told GoStanford.com's Michelle Smith. "He's almost embarrassed if somebody compliments him or wants to talk about him. He's very quick to deflect to teammates."
Grasp of a pro-style offense: Cerebral college quarterbacks are hard to come by; that's why former Oklahoma star Sam Bradford was ultimately a No. 1 overall draft choice despite questions about his throwing shoulder. Intelligent signal-callers with a grasp of a pro-style offense? Even rarer. The fact that Luck is tutored by Harbaugh, a former Pro Bowl quarterback that spent 14 seasons in professional football, is simply the icing on the cake.
Aside from his shoulder, one of the biggest knocks on Bradford was the offensive system he ran as a Sooner - a system that allowed him to read defenses and make throws, but which more closely resembled a college spread offense than a pro-style offense. Bradford has transitioned to the NFL with fantastic ease, but that's a transition that Luck will not even need to make. He has that foundation in place - he understands pro-style route combinations, blocking schemes and positional responsibilities, and more importantly, he has experience executing that type of offense. He'll just need to build on what he already knows when he turns pro.
Feel for the game: Dozens upon dozens of ultra-talented quarterback prospects have come and gone in the NFL, ultimately leaving unceremoniously after flaming out in the face of high expectations. In most cases, it's not the expectations that did them in. Those quarterbacks just couldn't get over the hump in understanding how to play their position in professional football.
Luck has exhibited exemplary development in this area in his two years at Stanford. We can't define it for you; they're called "intangibles" for a reason. When you watch Luck play - if you haven't yet, you really should - pay attention to little things like pre-snap reads and how he handles pressure in the pocket. These are the marks of a quarterback that is not only talented, but is what a lot of his peers are not: good at playing football. It sounds simple enough, but it truly is hard to find.
"Go ahead and watch Luck under pressure," says Kadar. "He steps up into it. There is chaos around him, but Luck effortlessly steps up into the pocket and delivers. Being cool under pressure lets Luck have the vision to fit the football into tight windows. Being confident enough to step into the pocket has also allowed Luck to really step into his throws and put zip on the ball.
"Compare him to Florida State's Christian Ponder, for instance. Ponder doesn't step into his throws and they flutter. Luck drives the ball with a tight spiral."
The point here is this: most collegiate quarterbacks have either raw talent or a good mix of intangibles. Rarely do you see players with both; when you do, those quarterbacks are selected very early, and not all of them pan out. Luck is different as a prospect because not only does he possess talent and intangibles, but he has developed to a point where his intangibles make him a much better player than his talent might dictate. That progression, if you're lucky, happens early in a professional career. Luck's not done turning that corner by any means, but the fact that he's started is what sets him apart as a prospect. You'll hear people gush about him beyond this article for that very reason: for such a young player, his development truly is remarkable.
Will he or won't he?
At this point, barring something unforeseen and catastrophic, Luck will be the No. 1 overall pick in whichever NFL Draft he decides to make himself eligible for. He's drawing comparisons to Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, mostly for the immediacy in which Ryan commanded an NFL huddle and quarterbacked a professional winner. Kadar compares him to Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer as a prospect, both in terms of playing style and the command of the game each exhibited at the collegiate level.
The only question remaining is which NFL Draft Luck will be selected in. He's eligible for the 2011 NFL Draft. If he continues a trend of hot underclassmen snubbing a likely No. 1 overall pick to stay in school, however, that would crush a lot of currently-formulating NFL fan dreams.
Bradford skipped out on the 2009 NFL Draft to return to Oklahoma, even though many draft analysts believed (albeit in early January) that he had a great shot of beating out Matthew Stafford for the right to be selected No. 1 overall by Detroit. That decision worked out well enough for Bradford; even though he missed much of his senior season due to injury, he was selected No. 1 overall in the 2010 NFL Draft, and got about $8 million more in guaranteed money than Stafford did the year before. Then again, Jake Locker passed on the 2010 NFL Draft, where he might have been the No. 1 overall pick over Bradford, and has now seen his star fall to the point where he'll be lucky to be a Top 10 pick in 2011. There are successes and failures on both sides of the early-decision coin, and Luck will need to make his choice carefully.
Early reports have been mixed on whether or not Luck is considering leaving Stanford after just two years as a starter. Back in July, a report surfaced that Luck wanted a degree before going pro. Then, in September, Tony Pauline reported that "barring an unforeseen disaster," Luck would enter the 2011 NFL Draft. Luck has two more years of college eligibility remaining, and while he risks injury in returning to Stanford in 2011, there's also little doubt that most NFL teams wouldn't mind Luck adding a year of experience and another layer of polish to his already excellent overall game.
His choice, either way, will shape how the 2011 NFL Draft unfolds. While we await a decision (which we'll get mid-January), the dreams of NFL fans in Buffalo, Carolina, San Francisco and perhaps even Dallas hang in the balance.