Three quarterbacks have emerged as the consensus top prospects at their position before the 2014 NFL draft: Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, UCF's Blake Bortles and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel. All three players have spent time atop SB Nation's weekly mock drafts and all three could ultimately be taken among the first five picks come May, with plenty of QB-needy teams sitting at the start of the draft order.
Whether any of three will be any good during their rookie year is another question. Jacksonville Jaguars general manager David Caldwell wasn't sure when asked at the Combine which of the three quarterbacks is most ready to contribute out of the box:
"That's tough. We're still going on with that evaluation process. We have to sit down with these guys -- a lot of it will depend on the interviews, the workout, when we bring them in. Rookie quarterbacks, as a whole, generally aren't NFL ready. You get the exceptions like Andrew Luck and Matt Ryan and Peyton Manning, but those are guys that spent 4-5 years at a university playing in a pro-style offense. That's not the common thing right away for a rookie to come in and start."
Luck, Ryan and Manning were solid rookie quarterbacks by several measures. Luck started 16 games, and though he completed just 54.1 percent of his passes he threw for 4,374 yards and had a positive ratio of 23 touchdowns to 18 interceptions. Ryan was asked to do less but was arguably more effective in his first year, completing 61.1 percent of his passes for 3,440 yards, 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 16 starts.
Manning's first year was erratic. He set a rookie record with 26 passing touchdowns, but also had 28 interceptions while completing a career-low 56.7 percent of his passes at 6.5 yards per attempt. Caldwell's rose-tinted view of Manning's first year with Indianapolis may be a bit tinted by the quarterback's success in subsequent seasons.
Luck, Ryan and Manning would be considered very good quarterbacks, however, and Caldwell is right that all three have similar college backgrounds. All three played in prototypical pro-style offenses for at least four years, and each started at least 34 games before becoming top-five overall draft picks. Manning started 45 before being selected by the Indianapolis Colts.
If those three are the mold for success as a quarterback out of the first round of the draft, then Bridgewater, Bortles and Manziel are in trouble. Bridgewater started 34 games, but did so in three years. Bortles was at UCF for four years, but technically rounded up just 27 starts (he wasn't credited with a start his redshirt freshman year, though he appeared in 10 games). Manziel neither stayed four years in college nor hit the 34-game benchmark, starting 26 games with a 20-6 record.
Manziel takes a third strike, by Caldwell's estimation, with the fact that he was raised in a spread offense. He thrived in a system that allowed him the freedom to improvise, and whichever team selects him will have to respect that freedom, according to SB Nation's Dan Kadar:
"Anyone with an opinion about Manziel will need to realize he is wholly his own as a player. Whatever teams drafts him will have to change for him. Chances are he won't be changing for them."
The good news for Manziel, as well as Bridgewater and Bortles, is that Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton have already pretty well smashed the mold.
Griffin had arguably one of the best rookie years for a quarterback ever coming out of an air raid offense at Baylor. He racked up a 102.1 quarterback rating while completing 65.6 percent of his passes at 8.1 yards per attempt for 20 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
Granted, Griffin had 40 career starts in four years with Baylor, so his experience behind center was Manning-esque. Newton, on the other hand, had 26 college starts to his name before hopping to NFL, and just 14 of them came at the FBS level. He spent four years in college, but they were of the rough-and-tumble variety, what with allegations of a laptop theft and academic cheating. Gus Malzahn's offense helped Newton win a Heisman, but is one of the furthest things in college football from a pro-style offense. He still posted a better quarterback rating as a rookie than Manning or Luck. Ryan just beat him out, 87.7 to 84.5.
It's true, the profile of a first-round quarterback has skewed heavily towards the experienced pocket passer. But Brandon Weeden, Christian Ponder and Brady Quinn aren't exactly ringing endorsements for the idea that a quarterbacks has to hit such-and-such benchmarks to be a Day 1 starter, just as Tim Tebow negates the New Wave.
Maybe the formula is really as simple as taking the guy you think is really good and hoping for the best?