NFL teams searching for a franchise quarterback huddle once again at the combine in Indianapolis, ogling the 19 quarterbacks present. These quarterbacks continue chats with teams and meet with reporters on Friday. On Saturday, they throw for all to see.
This combine of quarterbacks is like all of the others. The top five enter as early favorites — Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield, and Lamar Jackson. The rest are a mixed bunch, tall and short, strong-armed and finesse-driven, less recognized, sleepers hoping to upset the pre-combine quarterback order.
“The first group is like comparing apples to apples, the second is like comparing oranges to oranges,” said legendary draft expert Gil Brandt. “But can you find an orange that is actually a nice, honey crisp-like apple? I like those. Those are the sweetest kinds.”
They are also the most cap-friendly, the mid- to later-round quality quarterback finds that allow teams to build efficiently around them. The bargain. The steal. The sleeper turned franchise quarterback.
The guy who cements the fact that combine quarterback evaluation is a step toward skillfully predicting 10-year NFL projections, not a merit badge for past college feats.
It is hair-pulling work for NFL teams.
Plucking the orange that is actually an apple is a shrewd art that intertwines with many crucial factors, including pure luck.
Think Jimmy Garoppolo in 2014 at pick No. 62. Or Russell Wilson in 2012 at pick No. 75. Or Nick Foles that same year at pick No. 88. Or Dak Prescott in 2016 at pick No. 135.
Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre was drafted later than expected (1991/pick No. 33). Tom Brady was drafted much later than that (2000/pick No. 199), and Kurt Warner (1994) was not drafted.
Beyond the top five-ranked quarterbacks at the 2018 NFL Combine, who is actually an apple? Who is that guy?
NFL scouts are telling me Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph is already at the edge of the top five — already in the top five in some circles — and is strong in the pocket and adept at play-action. Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson is a candidate. He excels at throwing accurately on the move.
They tell me that Western Kentucky quarterback Mike White threw for so many collegiate yards with a strong arm and with impressive across-the-field reads that they are eager to see more up close. They want to view what Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta and Washington State’s Luke Falk do. Lauletta has impressed with his leadership and production. Falk has displayed a quick release and nimbleness in the pocket.
How can Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett be ignored? There is no quarterback in this field who has won more games, more big games, and has been as clutch as Barrett.
There is not, however, a more textured, intriguing quarterback among the “oranges” in this combine that Marshall’s Chase Litton.
He is 6’5, 232 pounds. He is 21. He grew up in Tampa. He leaves Marshall after his junior year. He has talent. He has charisma.
”He’s got some history to him,” said former NFL offensive coach Mike Sheppard.
”He’s not perfectly clean,” Brandt says.
”A little messy,” is the way one NFL scout described Little’s past.
“Just a part of the portrait we are going to explore,” is the way one NFL general manager portrayed it.
Litton, this big guy with a big arm who moves exceptionally well and challenges defenses downfield, is embracing the task of matching passing wits with the combine “apples” and convincing teams he has matured. That he is not stuck in his mistakes but more seasoned and assured because of them.
”Can we trust him?” Litton asks in referencing the question some NFL teams will ask. “Oh yeah, they can. I love football. I love the entire process. I love five-hour film sessions. I love the work. I’m growing in this game. I’m ready to put it all together for the future.”
His past includes a merchandise robbery with high school football teammates when he was 16, an incident involving nude photos of his then-girlfriend when he was 18, and a failed marijuana test during his sophomore year at Marshall.
The incident with the nude photos occurred in 2014 when a friend posted the images of Litton and his former girlfriend on social media. The victim’s family filed a bullying report.
After that, Litton made a series of phone calls to the girl, which he acknowledged made the situation worse in an interview with SB Nation. In one message to the family he claimed he had nothing to do with the incident. The victim’s family filed for and received a year-long stalking injunction against Litton, but no criminal charges were ever filed.
Sheppard, who was an NFL offensive coach for seven teams over nearly 20 years, worked in Carlsbad, Calif., with college quarterbacks prior to the combine.
Litton was one of them.
”We had him for a month or so,” Sheppard said. “He’s big enough. He’s strong enough. His ball has velocity. He appears to be a good learner. We put him on the board and he did it perfectly. I think he has the skills to play. I don’t know if he has the makeup, but certainly there have been great players who overcame things in this league. He will be on the board as a draftable player. He did win nine games last year at Marshall. And he didn’t have any incidents last year.”
An effective mix of talent and character for an NFL franchise quarterback is essential.
”How is he going to deal with the things outside of football is the question,” former Marshall and 11-year NFL quarterback Chad Pennington said. “The things outside the game are not easy to handle. I know the Marshall coaches told me they saw great progress from him in all of those areas from his sophomore year to his junior year. I think his talent speaks for itself.
“I think three great places for him would be San Francisco, where they put the quarterback on the move and he wouldn’t have to start right away; Kansas City, where his quick release and movement would be assets; and Denver, where they also have an offense with some quarterback movement. Like all young quarterbacks, though, he needs someone with experience at the position around him to show him, to follow.”
Litton’s game translates to the NFL. The fact he is so big but dances and slides well in the pocket is a plus. His willingness to throw darts across the field as well as downfield are NFL desirables. He does not require a perfect pocket to operate.
These are among the elements, Pennington believes, that will flash for Litton at this combine. Litton could very well be that guy who enters an orange and exits an apple.
”And here is where he will begin to tell his story,” Brandt said. “Teams want to hear it. I know I want to hear it.”
Here it is, straight from Litton:
”It shouldn’t take bad things to open your eyes to good things,” he began. “There have been times I didn’t lead in the right way. I’ve made some bad decisions, especially as a teenager. I’m still ashamed to this day of how I put our family name in jeopardy.
”My mom, Lisa, watched as I spent the first two years of my life in a hospital bed dealing with bacterial meningitis. She has had two bouts of breast cancer that she has defeated and now is battling Lupus. Yet, she is the most joyous, selfless person you could ever meet. She has dedicated her life to helping people. She is a solider, a warrior. Mama Litton.
”My dad, Jeff, is tough, spent a lifetime in the car business, the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. I was 13. I went upstairs to the bedroom. My mom was quiet. My dad was in the bathroom emotional. I asked him what was wrong. He said he had just been laid off. It was two weeks before Christmas. It wasn’t the job. He was just so hurt for his family and kids that they wouldn’t have the Christmas he wanted. I remembered these things on the way to correcting my mistakes. This is with me now at the combine.
”I’m not nervous. I don’t outthink things. All of the quarterbacks are here. You’re analyzed for your work but you’re also compared to the guys right next to you. It’s a challenge I’m ready for. It’s one I’ve dreamed about.”
The combine is the platform where a quarterback’s rise in the draft process commences.
Litton assures everyone that when this combine is complete, he will not be overlooked. Not as a quality quarterback. Nor as a character person.
”I’m not too high, I’m not too low,” Litton said. “I’m ready for what’s next.”