On Thursday, Peters was asked about Saints coach Sean Payton’s postgame comment that the Saints got the matchup they wanted when Drew Brees threw a 72-yard touchdown pass to Michael Thomas, whom Peters was covering. The play helped seal the Saints’ win, as the Rams suffered their first loss of the season, 45-35, last Sunday.
“They were going to travel Marcus to him, and that was fine by us,” Payton said after the game. “We thought we really liked that matchup — a lot.”
After practice Thursday, Peters shared his own thoughts.
“Tell Sean Payton to keep talking that s—. We going to see him soon, you feel me?” Peters said. “Because I like what he was saying on the sidelines too. So tell him to keep talking that s—. I hope he see me soon, you feel me? Then we going to have a good li’l, nice li’l bowl of gumbo together.”
Thomas had a career day against the Rams and set a new franchise record for most receiving yards in a single game with 211.
Thomas caught 12 of 15 passes that he was targeted on.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Peters was the nearest defender on eight targets against the Saints, all of which were to Thomas. Thomas caught six of the eight targets for 127 yards and a touchdown.
After the game, Peters said he “just got beat” on the 72-yard play, which came on third-and-7 with 3:52 left, and that he was not pleased with his performances the last couple of weeks.
“Got up there in press, came back, he just beat me off the line,” Peters said. “Looked back and tried to make a play on the ball. S— happens like that in football.”
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Two days after saying that he’s learning to deal better with media reports of drama surrounding the New England Patriots, quarterback Tom Brady politely told reporters at his Friday news conference that he’s sticking to football.
“I don’t want to bring on any drama this year,” Brady said, two days before he will lead the team against the Houston Texans in the season opener. “I’m just focused on what I want to do, and be a great football player for this team and be a good example in the locker room, provide great leadership. That’s where my focus is. I know people want to talk about a lot of other things, but I just really want to stick on football and focus on being the best I can be for this team.”
Brady’s answer came after he was asked a question about his personal athletic trainer, close friend and business partner, Alex Guerrero.
The theme continued when Brady was later asked about Nike’s advertisement with quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
“I really want to focus on football, not hot topics, and my reaction to a lot of hot topics and so forth,” he said. “Get ready for the Texans — they’re a great team. That’s where my focus is, not on advertisements and so forth.”
Along those lines, Brady took note of the Philadelphia Eagles running the “Philly Philly” play in their season-opening win over the Atlanta Falcons — which members of the Eagles organization said they took from the Patriots, as it was the play in which Brady dropped a pass in Super Bowl LII.
“Good execution wins games,” said Brady, who watched Thursday’s opener with his son Jack. “I think that’s ultimately what we have to do. When you have to make the plays, you either make them or you don’t.”
“I have confidence in them, certainly. Phillip and Chris, I obviously played a lot with them last year. Cordarrelle is new and he’s done some good things and he’s been productive in this league,” Brady said. “To be on this team, you have to be a good football player …. We’re all going to be learning on the fly and you have to build as the season goes.”
Brady, who was elected a team captain for the 17th straight year, said in his “Tom vs. Time” epilogue Wednesday that he hopes to play until he’s 45. But at the moment, it’s a short-term focus for him with the season opener in mind.
“I’m really excited,” he said. “It’s a blessing to be able to do it. I love playing football. I love the sport. I’ve been doing it for a long time. I’m not sure what life would be like without it. I’ve had a few experiences when I haven’t been out there and haven’t liked those very much.
“There’s no place I’d rather be Sunday afternoon at 1 o’clock than playing here, and playing well.”
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Dan Cooper knows Teddy Bridgewater‘s heart like few people do, because Cooper cut open the quarterback’s leg on Sept. 8, 2016, when pro football’s most stunning comeback began inside a Dallas clinic.
Amputation was no longer a feared possibility, and yet what the surgeon faced that day was something one might see on the set of a sci-fi film.
“It was just a horribly grotesque injury,” Cooper said.
The good doctor was talking about the quarterback’s left knee, which had exploded without warning nine days earlier while Bridgewater was dropping back to pass, untouched, in a Minnesota Vikings practice.
“It’s mangled,” Cooper said. “You make the skin incision, and there’s nothing there. It’s almost like a war wound. Everything is blown.”
Bridgewater could get traded by the New York Jets to clear room for the No. 3 overall draft choice, Sam Darnold, to start on opening day; the Jets likely won’t want to pay Bridgewater $5 million as a backup with Josh McCown already on the books for $10 million. In fact, Friday’s preseason meeting with the Giants could be the last chance for New York-area fans to see the former Vikings Pro Bowler as one of their own.
Bridgewater might go without taking a single regular-season snap for the Jets, who have seemingly spent a half-century searching for a young star at the sport’s most crucial position before ending up with two viable candidates for the role at the same time.
Sam and Teddy. Teddy and Sam. The Jets are apparently going with Darnold, which likely means a new address for Bridgewater sooner rather than later. Either way, New Yorkers should understand what they’re looking at while they still have the chance. Bridgewater is a not-so-minor miracle, a walking advertisement for the power of the human spirit.
“This surgery was an absolute gut test, a test of what you’re made of, and I’ve seen it break people down,” Cooper said. “I never saw it break Teddy down. … Most people have no idea the volume of the workload this kid had to put in. He had a toothpick of a leg he had to rebuild.”
Bridgewater gave his doctor permission to talk to ESPN.com about the surgeries — there were two — that granted him access to a second NFL life. Cooper, the Cowboys’ team physician, remembered the first surgery lasting about four and a half hours, and the second one — eight weeks later to treat stiffness around the knee — lasting about an hour. Both were performed in the Carrell Clinic in Dallas.
Truth is, Bridgewater was the Vikings’ Darnold only a few years ago. He was the young and poised franchise quarterback-to-be, a prospect who had 15-year starter written all over him. And then suddenly on Aug. 30, 2016, during a simple noncontact drill 25 minutes into practice, Bridgewater went down in a heap. Teammates and coaches reacted the way teammates and coaches reacted to the gruesome leg injuries suffered by the likes of Joe Theismann, Kevin Ware, Paul George and Gordon Hayward.
They screamed. They cursed. They recoiled. They prayed. An ambulance with sirens blaring raced into the complex to transport away a 23-year-old athlete who was afraid doctors might need to amputate. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer immediately canceled practice. He worried that Bridgewater would never walk again, never mind play again.
“This surgery was an absolute gut test, a test of what you’re made of, and I’ve seen it break people down. I never saw it break Teddy down. … Most people have no idea the volume of the workload this kid had to put in. He had a toothpick of a leg he had to rebuild.”
Dan Cooper, Teddy Bridgewater’s surgeon
The coach grew emotional that day when talking about the devastating injury, even referencing the unexpected loss of his wife in 2009. Zimmer said he leaned on a spiritual connection with his late father and on the secular bond he shared with his professional mentor, Parcells.
The Vikings’ training staff and first responders stabilized Bridgewater, who did not suffer the kind of arterial or nerve damage that could’ve cost him his leg.
“But it’s certainly the worst knee dislocation in sports I’ve ever seen without having a nerve or vessel injury,” Cooper said. “It’s an injury that about 20-25 percent of NFL players are able to come back from. … It’s a horrific injury. You’ve torn every single thing in your knee and it’s hanging on by one ligament on one side like a hinge.”
Cooper performed a reconstruction of Bridgewater’s anterior cruciate ligament. “And then everything on the lateral side of his knee was reconstructed, about five ligaments over there,” the surgeon said. “We repaired them, then took one of his own hamstring tendons and transplanted it to the lateral side of his knee.”
The experience was incredibly stressful for a doctor fully invested in his patients. And yet over and over, Cooper maintained that his repair work in such cases is effectively complete on day one, and that the athlete is left with overwhelming emotional and physical burdens that he or she has to manage every day for a year or more. In the immediate wake of his injury, Bridgewater said in a statement, “I come from amazing DNA, I watched my mom fight and win against breast cancer. We will, as a team, attack my rehab with the same vigor and energy.”
Bridgewater made a stirring return to the field in Minnesota in December, throwing his only two passes of the season in a blowout victory over Cincinnati. The Vikings belonged to Case Keenum by then, and soon enough they would belong to Kirk Cousins. In March, after the Jets signed Bridgewater to a one-year, $6 million deal, Zimmer said reports from Vikings doctors on his former quarterback’s recovery “weren’t as positive” as he’d hoped.
Cooper was on a plane when Bridgewater made his preseason debut for the Jets against Atlanta, so he had a Dallas video staffer tape the game for him. When the surgeon sat down to watch, he was profoundly touched by the images of Bridgewater completing 7 of 8 passes for 85 yards and a touchdown. The Jets won 17-0, and nobody dared tell Cooper that this preseason result was meaningless.
“I’ve always said Super Bowls for surgeons don’t happen in February,” he said. “It was an incredibly gratifying thing for me to see a player overcome that. … That’s exactly why I do what I do, to see Teddy play like he did.”
It was a gray and drizzly Sunday morning, the kind that begs you to stay in bed, and early on Bridgewater was wearing the body language of a man who wished he’d done just that. The Jets were running through a two-hour practice in front of a small but spirited gathering of fans, and Bridgewater wasn’t matching the energy of the hotshot rookie, Darnold, who bounced about the field as if he had just been awarded the starting job for keeps.
Bridgewater looked as if he’d just gotten word of Darnold’s appointment, too. He threw one touchdown pass on an out-and-up to Andre Roberts near the left sideline, and in congratulating his fellow quarterback by slapping his hand and helmet, Darnold appeared more excited about the pass than the man who delivered it. Then the first-rounder from USC took the field with the first-stringers, while Bridgewater faded into the background with the subs.
Teddy knew. So did McCown, the 16-year vet. Everyone with a functioning pair of eyes and a keen sense of how things work in the NFL knew that the Jets had already decided, after two preseason games, that there was no point in redshirting the redhead. Barring something unforeseen, Darnold was going to be their Week 1 guy.
Todd Bowles and his offensive coordinator, Jeremy Bates, have raved about Darnold’s maturity and presence, but they have also expressed a certain degree of awe over what Bridgewater has already accomplished. Bowles said that the former Louisville star is forever smiling and projecting the vibe of a perfectly healthy player.
“He’s never showed me that he was injured,” Bowles said.
Bates said he had goosebumps on the sidelines when Bridgewater entered the game against Atlanta.
Darnold? He called his chief competition “a cool cat” with an even disposition who’s always telling him, “Hey bro, we’re out here playing football. Doesn’t really get much better than that.”
In his second preseason game, against Washington, Bridgewater completed 10 of 15 passes for 127 yards and another touchdown to go with his first interception and some hits he said he absorbed “for my own benefit. It’s something that I wanted to do and it just showed me that, ‘Hey, you’re good.'”
Yes, he’s very good. Though Darnold has been impressive, Bridgewater has slightly outperformed him over these two games. His former offensive coordinator at Louisville, current University of Pittsburgh assistant Shawn Watson, watched Bridgewater against Atlanta and Washington and came away believing he was whole. Watson saw a quarterback whose rhythm and ball location were exactly as they were before the injury.
“I see Teddy,” Watson said. “I see the old Teddy. I see the guy I coached at Louisville.”
Bridgewater feels like that player, too. He said the other day that it was fun running gassers and getting in shape, and that he hasn’t been held out of any drills. He shrugged off questions about trade rumors, and who could blame him for refusing to sweat the small stuff?
“His inner resolve kept him from being defeated on a daily basis for a year and a half.”
Dan Cooper, Teddy Bridgewater’s surgeon
“I am blessed with the opportunity to continue to do what I love to do,” Bridgewater said. “That’s what’s most important to me right now. Just waking up every day knowing that I get to continue to play football.”
The following day, at the end of that otherwise sluggish Sunday morning in the rain, Bridgewater suddenly sprang to life on his final drive and fired a strike over the middle to Jordan Leggett for a walk-off touchdown to end practice. To celebrate the moment, the quarterback playfully and repeatedly jumped on the back of a defensive tackle. Teddy Ballgame was back.
So far it’s been a hell of a comeback. Built like a one-iron, Bridgewater has proved to be one of the strongest men in the NFL.
“His inner resolve,” Cooper said, “kept him from being defeated on a daily basis for a year and a half.”
He might get traded anyway, and that’s OK. Teddy Bridgewater doesn’t need to take any regular-season snaps with the Jets. He has already left a mark on a tough town that won’t soon forget him.
Free-agent wide receiver Dez Bryant, prodded by Cleveland Browns general manager John Dorsey to come in for a tryout, said on Twitter on Thursday night that he’s starting his visits next week and that Cleveland will be on his list.
Starting my visits next week…I’m coming to the Land to see you Mr Dorsey
Dorsey had told reporters before the Browns’ preseason game against the New York Giants on Thursday night that he had called Bryant to ask him to come in for a workout, but Bryant hadn’t returned his calls.
Bryant then took to Twitter to tell Dorsey, as well as his 3.5 million followers, that he wouldn’t mind playing for the Browns but that he isn’t ready yet. He said he was still getting himself ready and was enjoying spending time with his children.
A couple of hours later, Bryant had reconsidered and tweeted his decision that he was “starting my visits next week,” including with Cleveland.
Bryant, a three-time Pro Bowler, was released in April after an eight-year Cowboys run in which he became the franchise leader in touchdown receptions. He turned down a multi-year offer from the Baltimore Ravens, ESPN reported, in hopes of getting a bigger long-term deal in 2019.
Dorsey said he wants to bring in a group of receivers next week to help fortify a position where the Browns keep taking hits. On Sunday, they traded Corey Coleman to the Buffalo Bills, then Antonio Callaway, a fourth-round pick who was expected to take Coleman’s place, was cited for marijuana possession and driving with a suspended license.
Callaway had numerous off-field problems while he was at Florida and is already in Stage 1 of the NFL’s substance-abuse program after he provided a diluted urine sample at the league’s combine in February. Callaway traveled with the team and was expected to play Thursday night in the Browns game against the Giants.
Wide receiver Josh Gordon voluntarily left the team as part of his aftercare in the NFL’s drug addiction treatment program, and the Browns are not sure when he will return. Backup Ricardo Louis will miss the season after having neck surgery.
In 2016, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began to kneel during the national anthem to bring awareness to social injustice issues. Last season, numerous players continued to either kneel or lock arms during the anthem. The movement drew increasing criticism from President Donald Trump, as well as many fans who believed it was a sign of disrespect toward the flag and country.
“I’ve been playing sports long enough [to know] everyone comes from something different, and I think showing respect for everybody, in a locker room, with a team of guys trying to go in the same direction — you better have that empathy for everybody. That’s what sports are about,” Brady said.
Last month, NFL owners approved a new policy that requires players to stand if they are on the field during the anthem but gives them the option to remain in the locker room if they prefer.
Brady told Winfrey that the Patriots held “meetings after practice talking about how we wanted to deal with that particular situation.”
“We support what people are going through,” he said.
The full interview with Brady will air over the weekend on OWN, Winfrey’s TV network.
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and his agent Drew Rosenhaus met Tuesday with coach Bill Belichick, telling him that Gronkowski will play for the Patriots this season. The decision ends speculation that he could retire.
“It was very positive and Rob is committed,” Rosenhaus told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
A source told Schefter that Gronkowski will not be traded this season.
Gronkowski announced his return on Instagram.
Gronkowski, who turns 29 on May 14, earned All-Pro honors in 2017 as he bounced back from a season in which he was limited to eight regular-season games in 2016 and underwent back surgery. He led the Patriots with 69 receptions, which went for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns.
He missed two games in the regular season — one because of his thigh and one due to NFL suspension — and was knocked out of the AFC Championship Game because of a concussion.
His health might have been on his mind after Super Bowl LII when asked about possibly retiring.
“I don’t know how you heard that, but I mean, I’m definitely going to look at my future, for sure,” Gronkowski said moments after the Patriots lost to the Philadelphia Eagles. “I’m going to sit down in the next couple of weeks and see where I’m at.”
When asked that day what would make him retire, Gronkowski said, “I’m not ready for these types of questions right now. I mean, I’m just going to sit down, reflect on the season, keep talking to my teammates … and just see what happens.”
Gronkowski, who has undergone three back surgeries in his career, in addition to procedures on his knee and forearm, said after the Super Bowl that concussions would not be the reason for him to retire.
Information from ESPN’s Mike Reiss was used in this report.
Jackson said that a winless 2017 and a one-win 2016 had built toughness and determination, but that it’s not enough.
Jackson elaborated at a Tuesday session with the media.
“You go into every year wanting to win,” Jackson said, “but I think, let’s just be honest: This is where we are. We’re a 1-31 organization over the last two years. I think it’s time to win. I think our fans deserve to see something different. I think our organization deserves to do something different. I think our players should expect to be different and play different.
“So I think it’s time.”
“I think every offseason there’s a goal to win, but I think with us, coming the last two seasons where we came from, there’s a little bit more urgency in it,” guard Joel Bitonio said.
Jackson’s emphasis on the word “win” was not by accident. They have lost at least 11 games in nine of the past 10 seasons. Since 1999, when they returned to the NFL as an expansion team, they have had two winning seasons and been in one playoff game. Anyone who has been involved with the Browns for the past few years has known only losing.
To change the vibe, the Browns acquired via trade a new quarterback in Tyrod Taylor, a new receiver in Jarvis Landry (and signed him to a $75 million extension) and a new safety in Damarious Randall. They then signed 10 players in free agency and added offensive coordinator Todd Haley from the Steelers.
“They were strategically picked to be a part of this because they can help get this organization to winning as fast as we can,” Jackson said.
Bitonio remembered the day when the trades for Taylor, Landry and Randall leaked.
“My phone was blowing up, and I was taking a nap and all this stuff was happening, and I was like, ‘I got to stay up now,'” Bitonio said.
Taylor recognizes the challenge. He and Landry got together with tight end David Njoku to work out and throw together in Miami in March. The group worked for five days on the field to generate chemistry. Landry even put together a video on the workouts and posted it on Twitter.
Taylor was in Cleveland last week, so he got to know some of his teammates then. On the first day of the offseason program, he said he was in the building between 6 and 6:15 a.m. A little less than two hours later, he was listening to Jackson.
“Everyone is zero and zero right now, and we control what happens in the future,” Taylor said.
“The excuses have to go,” Bitonio said. “It’s time.”
The Browns also look forward to the draft on April 26, when they will have the first and fourth overall picks. Jackson said the team is still undecided on which quarterback it will draft, likely with the first pick, and that Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Baker Mayfield are all still in the discussion.
“I think it’s going to be pretty crystal clear at the end what’s the best player for us,” Jackson said.
We could come close to an NFL record this year before any players take a snap. There are five quarterbacks who could come off the board on Day 1 of the draft, which would tie the 1999 draft for the second most since the merger. The only draft to post six first-rounders is the legendary Class of 1983, which delivered a trio of Hall of Famers in John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino.
As much as the league seems to be struggling to pick between the prospects in this year’s class, though, the coaches and executives of 1983 weren’t able to separate the wheat from the chaff until well after the fact. Elway was the first overall pick, but the Chiefs still managed to draft Todd Blackledge seven picks before Kelly. Blackledge threw 29 career touchdowns. Kelly topped 29 in 1991 alone. Tony Eason was taken one pick after Kelly and 12 picks before Marino, who would post the greatest passing season in league history to that point during his second campaign.
A league full of coaches and personnel executives who had spent and would go on to spend the majority of their lives working in the game of football were not able to pick between a trio of future Hall of Famers and two guys who would fail to make a single Pro Bowl. (Ken O’Brien, drafted after Eason and before Marino, at least made two Pro Bowls over his 10-year career.)
Thirty-five years later, I’m not entirely convinced we’ve gotten much better at evaluating quarterbacks. The league has access to more information than ever before, but the job has become tougher. A wider range of passing offenses at the collegiate level have made it more difficult for obstinate coaches to translate amateur success into bland professional schemes. Passers come better prepared for the pre-draft process than ever before and are far more selective about throwing at the combine.
As a result, the range of opinions — anonymous and otherwise — we hear about these players before they enter the league is truly remarkable. The error bars are impossibly large. Ask around about Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen and you’ll hear that he’ll turn into budding MVP candidate Carson Wentz or Titans washout Jake Locker. You’ll hear that Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield will turn into either Johnny Manziel or Russell Wilson. This doesn’t happen in other sports. Jaylen Brown didn’t enter the NBA draft only to be compared to both Jimmy Butler and Bill Murray in “Space Jam.”
Picking the right quarterback is the most important thing an NFL organization can do. The Browns famously didn’t believe in Wentz and traded the second overall pick in 2016 to the Eagles, who did. The rest is history. You can basically get everything else wrong and still repeatedly make it to the playoffs with the right quarterback, as we saw in the first few years of Andrew Luck‘s career during Ryan Grigson’s reign as general manager in Indianapolis. It is not hyperbole to suggest getting this decision right is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
And yet history tells us that the league will wrongly evaluate these prospects. Chances are that one or two of these five passers will turn into superstars, but it’s unlikely that those one or two will be the first quarterbacks taken on draft night. Some fans are about to buy authentic team jerseys they’ll quickly regret. Thousands of scouts spent tens of thousands of nights in hotels around America for decisions nobody will want to claim three years from now. We should be able to do better than this.
So, what has gone wrong? Why can’t we reliably figure out which quarterbacks will turn into superstars? And can we fix it in time to evaluate this year’s class?
Over the next two days, I’ll look into how and why we struggle with the most important part of the draft process. We’ll try to answer the “why” in Part 2 on Tuesday, as well as evaluate whether the problems are fixable and apply what we know (and don’t know) to the Class of 2018. But let’s start with what recent history can tell us.
How bad is the problem?
Pretty bad. We’re about to hit the 20-year anniversary of the 1998 draft, which famously saw Colts general manager Bill Polian agonize over whether to take Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf, as Peter King documented for Sports Illustrated. Polian got his call right. The Colts grabbed Manning while the Chargers traded up to No. 2 and happily settled for Leaf, who threw 36 interceptions over 18 starts and was out of football by 2001.
Since then, it hasn’t been quite as easy. We’re still judging the most recent classes, and there are different ways to evaluate quarterbacks, but the first quarterback taken in the 19 drafts since 1998 has been the most productive and/or successful passer from that class only five times. It hasn’t happened since 2011, when the Panthers controversially chose Cam Newton over Blaine Gabbert and a bevy of dominant defenders with the first overall pick. (More on that later.) That was the fourth consecutive year in which the league correctly chose the most productive pro passer first, but the success rate wasn’t good before that and hasn’t been good since.
You can quibble with a couple of those choices. Maybe you prefer Luck over Wilson, even though Wilson has won a Super Bowl and has been far more productive in Seattle. Perhaps you think Jimmy Garoppolo has already proved to be better than Derek Carr. And there are some cases in which there really were no winners: The Bills would probably prefer to have Geno Smith over EJ Manuel, but you suspect they would rather have stayed out of the quarterback market altogether in 2013. You get the idea, though: The first guy often isn’t the best guy.
It’s fair to note that this doesn’t tell the whole story. Teams that pick first are often some of the worst organizations in football, and they’re among the worst because they’re bad at talent evaluation and subsequent development. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy — in other words, the Browns stay the Browns.
From what we know, though, even some of the league’s most decorated talent evaluators struggle with evaluating quarterbacks. When he was deciding between Leaf and Manning in 1998, Polian paid the late Bill Walsh $5,000 to evaluate both passers, a price that I suspect most teams would love to pay for a quarterback evaluation today. If you were making a list of the best quarterback evaluators in league history, the architect of the 49ers dynasty might be a good place to start.
Quotes from the report made their way into a USA Today story at the time by Richard Weiner, and surprisingly, Walsh raved about Leaf. “He is gifted, in just a natural throwing motion that is so quick,” Walsh reportedly said in his evaluation. “With a flick of his wrist, he can get the ball just about anywhere he wants. He is a good competitor, amazingly agile and smooth and graceful in his movement as a big man can be. He handled the Washington State offense beautifully. In a sense, it was an aerial circus.” Mike Shanahan, then the coach of the Super Bowl-winning Denver Broncos, said the “excellent” Leaf was “a big, strong kid with unbelievable arm strength. He’s played in a system very similar to a lot of NFL teams. That cannot be underestimated.”
At the same time, we don’t know what Walsh’s report said about the future Hall of Famer on the other side of this comparison, and most evaluators preferred the Tennessee star. A poll of executives at the time found that 20 of 25 observers preferred Manning, while three preferred Leaf and two couldn’t decide. Then-Steelers general manager Tom Donahoe, a member of the Eagles’ front office staff when it chose Wentz in 2016, suggested that you couldn’t go wrong with either guy. Colts coach Jim Mora said that both Leaf and Manning would be good players in the NFL, while Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson believed that Leaf would turn into one of the “future stars of the league.”
We’re lucky to have that many quotes about the Leaf-Manning debate on the record. Usually, pre-draft scouting evaluations are the domain of the dreaded anonymous scout or personnel executive, whose comparisons are often facile and occasionally prejudicial. It’s only after the fact that those executives come out and reveal that they had a first-round grade on that franchise quarterback they passed on three times and let someone else take in the fourth round.
Fortunately, to get a better sense of what the league actually thought about quarterbacks, there’s Bob McGinn. The legendary Packers beat writer took an annual poll of anonymous evaluators before the draft during his time with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, and asked them to rank the quarterbacks from each year’s draft class. McGinn then scored each of those ballots with five points for the top-ranked quarterback, four for the second-ranked quarterback and onward.
I was able to find polls going back to the 2005 draft, which was a fateful session for the team McGinn covered. Let’s run through the top five from those polls to see just how difficult it is to project quarterbacks.
While Rodgers challenged to be the first overall pick in the draft, the 49ers chose Smith, with Rodgers falling all the way to the Packers at 24. Many observers were concerned that Rodgers was a product of Cal coach Jeff Tedford, who previously sent Akili Smith, Kyle Boller and Joey Harrington to the pros with limited success. One NFL personnel director told McGinn that Tedford quarterbacks “all throw the ball the same way,” while another said Rodgers “is very rigid mechanically.” It’s difficult to think of a quarterback in NFL history who is more fluid in getting rid of the football off-schedule than Rodgers.
Opinions were split on the first three quarterbacks, although the legendary Rose Bowl battle between Leinart and Young loomed heavily on every scout’s mind. Leinart lost his job to Kurt Warner in Arizona, while Young mixed game-changing plays, bad decisions and inconsistency during his run in Tennessee. Young made two Pro Bowls but lacked the longevity of Cutler. As then-Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist documented in 2015, Shanahan wanted to draft Leinart, only for the Cardinals to beat them to the punch. Cutler would be the last highly touted quarterback to hit the NFL with a significant losing record in college until the Titans drafted Locker in 2011.
Kevin Kolb, who had the most success of any quarterback in this class, received only six points. Russell’s pro day was the stuff of legend, with both draftniks and ex-pros alike raving about his future. Bucs coach Jon Gruden compared it to “Star Wars,” while ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. compared Russell’s athleticism to Elway’s. Texans coach Gary Kubiak said he was sure Russell would turn into a great player, while Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw said Russell was a “pretty easy” choice for the Raiders with the first overall pick.
Others preferred Quinn, although he fell to the bottom of the first round before the Browns traded up to snatch him away with the 22nd pick. Polian raved about Quinn, dismissing a 58.0 completion percentage while noting that Quinn had no protection during his time at Notre Dame. Others disagreed, but Quinn certainly had his backers. McGinn asked 18 scouts if they would prefer to have Quinn or Rodgers, who had thrown only 31 passes with limited success over his first two seasons backing up Brett Favre in Green Bay. Just four of those 18 scouts chose Rodgers while 12 chose Quinn and two said it was too close to call.
There were concerns at the time about Ryan’s accuracy, but after completing just 59.9 percent of his passes at Boston College, Ryan is up to 64.9 percent as a pro. Brohm, a quantitative darling who completed 65.8 percent of his passes at Louisville, failed to unseat Rodgers and never developed into a successful pro. Flacco rose late up draft boards by virtue of his arm strength, although McGinn astutely noted that the famously quiet Flacco could be characterized as an introvert.
Stafford was another quarterback with a below-average 57.1 completion percentage in college, but he has improved his mechanics and accuracy as a pro, with the move to a short passing scheme under Jim Bob Cooter pushing him closer to 66 percent over the past several seasons in Detroit. Sanchez nearly parlayed his cool demeanor and lone year of college success into coming off the board second to the Rams, only to instead go to the Jets at No. 5 as part of a trade that the Browns somehow still lost.
The scouts got this one right, although Bradford never developed into the superstar some projected he would. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told McGinn that Bradford was “a tall-stature guy who has that prototypical stand in the pocket,” which seems like a roundabout way of saying that the 6-foot-4 Bradford was tall. The flashpoint was obviously Tebow. McGinn polled 21 scouts about his future, and the anonymous ones mostly got it right — 16 said he wouldn’t turn into an NFL starter, but eight of them suggested they would consider taking Tebow in one of the first two rounds of the draft.
You’ll note that this list doesn’t include Andy Dalton (15 points) or Colin Kaepernick (11). Opinions were split on the class. One scout rather hilariously told McGinn that there were only second- and third-rounders at the position in the pool and bemoaned the fact that there was no Bradford or Freeman. McGinn polled the scouts on Newton’s future, and only two of the 24 said he would become a perennial Pro Bowler. Nine said he would be a solid starter, while another nine said he would play without ever becoming effective. Four said he would be a bust.
Luck was the highest-regarded prospect of this generation, so it’s no surprise he received every first-place vote from the queried scouts. Among the guys who didn’t make it to the top five were Kirk Cousins (13 points), Russell Wilson (6) and Nick Foles (1). McGinn himself ranked Osweiler over Wilson, with one scout saying Osweiler was “like the CEO of a company.” That’s another roundabout way of saying someone’s tall. Many were concerned about the 5-foot-11 Wilson’s ability to throw from the pocket, but the only thing that’s prevented him from doing so as a pro has been the Seahawks’ offensive line.
The scouts rightly thought this was a dismal quarterback class, although it’s clear to see the difference between the consensus and what actually happened on draft day. While most of the league preferred Smith, the Bills were one of the exceptions and took Manuel with the 16th pick. The Florida State passer was the only quarterback taken in the first round.
It’s still unclear exactly who will end up as the best quarterback from this class, but it does seem safe to say it won’t be Johnny Football. Twelve of the 20 scouts McGinn polled suggested Manziel’s career would go down as a miss, with scouts expressing concerns about his off-field behavior even before hitting the pros. Zach Mettenberger received one first-place vote, with his six points placing him just ahead of AJ McCarron‘s five.
Winston was seen as a far more polarizing prospect at the time of the draft, owing in part to his off-field troubles. One scout compared Winston to a less athletic version of JaMarcus Russell. Eight of the 19 executives on McGinn’s anonymous committee suggested Winston would be a disappointment or a bust, while just one said the same thing about Mariota.
Dak Prescott finished behind Hackenberg with six points. While that seems comical now, remember that the Cowboys tried to trade up for Lynch and then were pipped to Cook by the Raiders before settling on the guy who would quickly become their franchise quarterback. One scout told McGinn that Prescott had “no accuracy and no vision,” while saying the Mississippi State product wasn’t an NFL quarterback. Another suggested that the Eagles would need to sit Wentz for a year or two before he could become a real starter, while others alternately compared him to both Bortles and Ben Roethlisberger.
It’s still far too early to draw any conclusions about this class, but it does seem likely that the person who submitted a first-place vote for Kizer probably won’t be bragging about it publicly anytime soon.
On Tuesday, we’ll try to figure out why teams struggle to evaluate quarterbacks, figure out whether the problems are fixable, and apply what we know (and don’t know) to the Class of 2018.