One of the most common arguments in draft conversation is “you must not have watched the tape!” So, before I even get to my thoughts on each of the QB prospects, I want to explain exactly how I evaluate QBs.
The first thing I look at is the physical attributes. Height, weight, body type, athleticism, and other basic purely physical traits. I do not disqualify anybody based on physical traits, but the lack of certain traits does raise the bar on how good other attributes need to be. There is no evidence that in the NFL, you need to be a certain height, certain weight, or anything else to be successful, so I do not set any artificial limits. A shorter QB must display the ability to still see the field and get the ball over the line. If he can, there’s no reason to downgrade him. A slower QB must display the ability to evade rushers. If he can, there’s no reason to downgrade him. Still, this first look can still impact what traits specifically to look for.
Finally, perhaps the least talked about and most important factor for judging a QB prospect is their age. In basketball, age is perhaps the most critical factor in determining the potential upside of a prospect. For the NBA, “Pretty much without exception, players were bad before age 20 (there were a few age 19 backup quality seasons), took a leap at age 20 or 21, took another leap at age 22 or 23, and then basically all players showed either consistent growth through the late 20s or took another leap some time between 24 and 28.” For NFL QBs, it’s slightly more difficult because there are less age 18-19 seasons, but there appears to be a consistent age 20 leap to the point where it’s pretty safe to ignore everything before age 20. Unfortunately, it’s really difficult to find consistent evidence of an age 22-23 leap because that’s typically when they make the jump to the NFL. There is some evidence indicating that the age 23 leap is real in the NFL, but there’s not enough of it to draw a very strong conclusion. However, there is strong evidence indicating that an age 25 (occasionally a year earlier or later, but by far most common at age 25) leap is 100% real.
The next thing I look at is mechanics. There are three parts to throwing mechanics: arm, body, and feet. Arm mechanics are the actual motion of the arm, how long it takes to throw from start of motion to end, whether there’s a consistent release point, and whether there is consistency in motion from throw to throw. Body mechanics is everything from the waist up. You want to square up to your target, which is done with both feet and body. That is how quick a QB can twist and turn. It is also whether a QB leans forward, back, or completely upright as they throw. Foot mechanics are dropbacks, how bouncy the feet are, how quick they move from side to side, how well they get pointed to the target before the throw, and how good the base is when planted.
The biggest mechanical issues are a long windup, an inability to consistently get squared to the target, too much leaning back while throwing, and inconsistent release point. These issues cause the most accuracy issues. It should be noted that while mechanics can be cleaned up, generally a player’s mechanics are his mechanics and any improvement/progress will be slow and often minor, having to rebuild year-over-year. That being said, mechanical issues are often overblown, and should only be considered to have an effect on draft stock if they consistently cause significant problems on throws.
This is separate from mechanics and includes raw arm strength, raw accuracy, touch, and ability to throw without fully engaging the body/legs. For arm strength, contrary to what NFL execs appear to believe, max ball speed is pretty irrelevant. There is definitely a threshold below where a guy will struggle to be a successful NFL QB, but above that, more ball speed generally just…doesn’t matter very much, and can sometimes be detrimental as it can be harder to catch, especially on short throws. Ball speed can also vary wildly from throw to throw – when it’s intentional, it’s arm talent, and when it appears to be unintentional, it’s usually a function of bad mechanics sapping the throw. For accuracy, this includes both accuracy (ball is thrown in a catchable place) and precision (ball is thrown in the correct place). Some QBs are highly accurate but imprecise. Some QBs are hit or miss but when they hit, they hit the right spot. Ability to throw on the run, in a collapsed pocket, or in other situations where correct mechanics cannot be used is also important. Not every throw is from a perfect base, some QBs are way better at generating power and accuracy in these situations than others and it’s one difference between stars and merely average QBs.
Raw arm talent is important, but may actually be the least important of all QB qualities when it comes to attaining a minimum level of success. Better arm talent certainly indicates a higher ceiling. However, once the arm meets minimum accuracy and strength levels, it is less important than the next few qualities.
Mental Processing and Ability to Handle Pressure
QB is perhaps more mental than it is physical. QBs need to process two completely separate spaces – the pocket and the defensive coverage – at the same time. In the pocket, QBs must show an ability to feel and respond to real pressure without overreacting to pressure that is not there or is otherwise likely to be locked. Reading coverage, QBs must show an ability to locate defenders who may jump the route and to determine whether the coverage is man or zone as quickly as possible. They must also show the ability to maintain some semblance of accuracy and decision-making while under pressure or when the defense throws an unexpected alignment out.
More than anything, these abilities can separate the NFL starters from the rest. It is extremely difficult to do either of these, and QBs who can do both consistently and quickly are often stars. QBs who can do neither are often relegated to the realm of backups and below no matter how good their arm is, because a QB who throws to the wrong team and takes unnecessary sacks or risks is a bad QB.
Running ability is a huge huge benefit and one of the major things I look for. A QB who can run puts significantly more stress on a defense and can wrap it around his unique abilities. Defenses must account for that ability, which limits the schemes they can run and how aggressively they can rush. Hell, Tim Tebow led a team with the 24th ranked defense to a 7-4 regular season record and a playoff win. Tim Tebow. Running ability for a QB is insanely valuable. First downs and possession are the name of the game, the game doesn’t care how you accomplish that.
For some reason, it is treated as a bad thing when QBs can run and I don’t know why. Running QBs are automatically “more injury-prone”. Newton, Wilson, Taylor, and Alex Smith have led the NFL in rushing attempts over the past 3 seasons. They’ve missed a combined 7 games over those 3 seasons, some of those not even related to injury or running. Do QBs get injured running? Absolutely. QBs who are not running QBs get injured running. Sometimes running QBs get injured too. Non-running QBs get injured too. Injuries suck. There’s a lot of them, especially in football. There is no evidence that running QBs are more injury prone – in fact the evidence points to the exact opposite. Running QBs are better able to avoid hits (especially in the pocket) and are more comfortable getting tackled in the open field, which mitigates the two most common ways non-running QBs get injured.
Another weird thing is that running QBs are generally automatically treated as inaccurate, lacking touch, unable to operate actual pro-style offenses, and other slights related to their passing and intelligence whether it’s true or not. There is no reason to conflate a QB’s running ability and their passing ability. It’s also generally automatically assumed that running QBs are more likely to bail from the pocket quicker when under pressure. This is both untrue and…not a bad thing?
I’ve never understood the line of thinking that a QB should pick up yards only with his arm. The reason most QBs don’t bail the pocket sooner is because they’re less dangerous outside the pocket. If you’re just as dangerous running, why shouldn’t you use that ability? The reason only one QB plays special teams is because most QBs can’t play special teams. They don’t have that ability. It would be like saying a RB is a bad RB because he’s capable of catching passes when he should just stay back and run the ball. There’s nothing mutually exclusive, what good does it do to suppress one of your talents for no reason whatsoever?
I am always hesitant to judge intangibles too much, but I think ignoring them completely is a bad idea. We generally don’t have access to medicals and we don’t know these guys. That being said, major injuries are reported and should be factored in, especially concussions, which don’t really go away ever. Leadership is certainly a factor – if a team doesn’t like playing for its QB, is it really a team? Players who consistently come up with clutch plays and lead late drives get a little boost, while players who consistently come up small and fail late get a little downgrade. There are some other intangibles that can come into play, but I try not to react too much to them simply because as fans, we never have full details.
Being an NFL QB is difficult. There are a ton of moving parts and a ton of factors to consider in grading prospects. On top of that, many prospects are still developing, and projecting how they will finish developing without even knowing who their coaches will be is nearly impossible. Still, some traits are simply more valuable than others. While arm talent certainly matters, being able to read defenses, navigate the pocket, and punish defenses for leaving open space are more critical towards a QB’s ultimate success. QBs who cannot do this are less likely to be truly successful at the next level.