breaking down luck, griffin and tannehill

(courtesy photo)

For the last seven seasons, I’ve been fortunate enough to cover the Washington Redskins from the sidelines.

Even though the losses continue to pile up, I’m still living any NFL fan’s dream by being that close to the action.

During that timeframe, I’ve seen more subpar quarterbacking from the likes of Mark Brunell, Jason Campbell, Donovan McNabb, Rex Grossman and John Beck that anyone should ever be subjected to, which is why I’m firmly on board with the idea of the Redskins aggressively pursuing a franchise quarterback this offseason.

Now, I watch as much college football as any casual fan, but I would never pretend to be an expert. And even though I’ve put together a checklist of what head coach Mike Shanahan looks for in a quarterback, I’m not going to pretend to be qualified enough to definitely say which rookies best fit .

So I turned to a gentleman by the name of Matt Waldman, who runs a website called The Rookie Scouting Portfolio. While there are a million people out there who attempt to break down film of college players, I’ve always been blown away by Matt’s detailed approach.

If you’ve not familiar with Waldman’s work, you owe it to yourself to check out his reports on the pocket presence of Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill,* the field vision of Virginia Tech running back David Wilson and the route running of Baylor receiver Kendall Wright.

*Spoiler alert: The Tannehill stuff is particularly relevant considering the draft needs of a certain local football franchise. Might not be a bad idea to bookmark that one.

Here are a few questions I came up with about the top-tier college quarterbacks and what Waldman had to say about each. Enjoy.

Unless something crazy happens between now and the NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts will make Stanford’s Andrew Luck the top pick in the draft. Just how good can this guy be and how does he stack up against other quarterbacks you’ve researched?

Luck can be a franchise quarterback in the NFL. That sounds like a bland answer, but I think there are few quarterbacks that fit that description — maybe 25 percent of NFL teams have one right now. He’s a great student of the game with a good athleticism, good poise under fire and the arm and anticipation to get the job done.

He’s not a great physical talent like Matthew Stafford, but like Matt Ryan, Luck can make most of the prerequisite throws and he has the work ethic to succeed. I consider work ethic a talent. It’s not just about working hard, but working smart.

Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player in history because he had great physical talent combined with an even greater talent to work. Peyton Manning is an average to slightly below average physical talent at quarterback, but his work ethic talent is second to none. Luck won’t ‘ooh and ahh’ the average fan with his athleticism like Robert Griffin III, but his knowledge of the game and ability to put his offense in advantageous plays is what separates Luck from the rest of this class.

Luck is playing in a pro style offense right now. He has opportunities to make more adjustments at the line of scrimmage than most college quarterbacks. Although this is the case, defenses can still confuse him and rattle him into mistakes. I watched him have some really poor moments versus fire zone blitzes against Oregon this year. So don’t expect Luck to come to the NFL and immediately make the Pro Bowl or lead his team to the playoffs.

However, do expect promising moments where you can see flashes of the hype that’s out there about him. We need to remember that quarterback is the most difficult position in sports. Luck from a conceptual, mechanical standpoint is as good as any quarterback — and actually better — that I’ve studied in seven years.

That being said, he’s not like Cam Newton, who can dominate athletically in the NFL. Athletic dominance in the NFL is a rare ability to have because we’re talking about the best one percent of college athletes now playing professionally. To be the top percent of that top percent is rarefied air.

When you combine that elite athleticism with Newton’s work ethic and the Carolina Panthers finding ways to make the offense transition-friendly for a rookie, you have that amazing statistical rookie season. I don’t see this happening for Luck, although I think his pocket management is among the best three or four quarterbacks I’ve ever watched.

For my money, the second pick in the draft will be Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. The only question is, which team will trade up to land the Heisman Trophy winner. How much of a drop off is there between Luck and Griffin III and what stands out when you watch film of RGIII?

The Luck-RGIII discussions underscore a great point about quarterbacking in the NFL. There is a prototype that NFL teams value from a quarterback. The traits for that prototype include pocket management skills, a strong arm, mobility, accuracy, and decision-making as a leader, a reader of defenses, a coach on the field, a ball handler and lastly a passer.

Most quarterbacks lack top skills at all of the things I just mentioned. Even the best quarterbacks, who usually ascend to greatness because they are strong in many of these areas and great enough in one of them to compensate for what they lack in another.

I’m prefacing my answer with this explanation because Griffin III and Luck are different styles of quarterback at this stage of their careers because they bring different “special powers” to their games that may or may not compensate for what they lack during their initial seasons as NFL starters.

Griffin III has the rocket arm and elite athleticism. I have heard people mention Newton when prefacing questions about Griffin — and I don’t know if that’s a common thing or just common with the questions I’m getting — but these two quarterbacks are different players. Griffin is more like Michael Vick in terms of his size/athleticism whereas Newton’s athleticism is more like a faster, more powerful Ben Roethlisberger or pre-injury Daunte Culepper (which for my money equates to a young Steve McNair, a terrific quarterback).

Part of the NFL prototype for quarterbacks requires some athleticism in today’s game. Eli Manning isn’t a great athlete, but he’s fast enough to get the corner and make a throw on the move. Yet no one will mistake him for Newton. Now Vick may make these throws on the move and burn a defense with ease if they given him a crease to run up the middle or in the flat, but keep him stuck in the pocket and constrict that pocket with pressure and his decision-making and pocket management aren’t at the prototypical level.

He’s still a quality starter, maybe just at or below franchise level in skill but its his athleticism that brings his game to that level the same way Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Philip Rivers’ pocket management and hyper-accuracy make up for their deficiencies with their legs.

Where the pocket-friendly quarterbacks tend to be more cautious, they need more help to accomplish the heroic than players like Vick or Griffin. The downside for these athletes like Roethlisberger, McNair, and Steve Young (in their early years) is that they can be too aggressive for their own good. They can abandon good judgment to make a play that they know they can execute physically.

Griffin’s upside is obvious to even the general fan, but he comes with some issues that are legitimate question marks. Pocket management taking a snap and dropping back is one area. I know most people think dropping back and surveying the field is easier than delivering the football.

However if it were, there would be a lot more quarterbacks starting in the NFL that were great shotgun passers in college. That’s not the case. I think Griffin has the smarts to address his shortcomings, but I think he’s going to be an up-and-down performer earlier in his career than what we saw from even Newton or even Andy Dalton.

The Redskins currently hold the sixth pick in the draft and are in desperate need of a franchise quarterback. Knowing the gap between the second best and third-best quarterbacks in this particular draft, how aggressive should Washington’s front office be in trading up to land RGIII?

I wouldn’t trade up for Robert Griffin III. This is what Pat Kirwan of CBS Sports appropriately calls the “credit card” mentality to managing a draft. I actually believe Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill is not really that far behind Luck or Griffin.

Tannehill has the speed to burn a defense as a runner, but he throws well on the move like an experienced NFL passer. He played in a pro style offense for former Packers head coach Mike Sherman. His pocket presence is as good as any quarterback’s in this draft and he has the requisite NFL arm. He’s a smart player, too. There’s talk about him not having the anticipation down field in coverage, but there aren’t many quarterbacks that consistently do at this stage of their careers.

Matt Ryan and Kerry Collins are two successful quarterbacks who have lacked deep anticipation past 35 yards and both have had good careers. I’ve seen Tannehill make good anticipatory throws, but you have to remember that a quarterback also needs consistent receivers and I’d say A&M’s best receiver might actually have been Tannehill.

His next best player might have been slot receiver Ryan Swope whose role is to get open in space and for Tannehill to throw to a spot. Jeff Fuller was the most heralded A&M receiver, but he has difficulty separating, running a diverse set of routes and catching the football. In my eyes Tannehill is a first-round talent and if I’m the Redskins and need a quarterback, I trade down to collect picks or use the sixth pick on another need and trade back up to land Tannehill.

I look at my dedication to studying film as a service to provide information about players to fans, other analysts, or even those in the NFL who look at this kind of independent work. Decisions are left to those with the role, responsibility and authority. That said, I think Tannehill is the best blend of arm talent, athleticism and poise of the four or five quarterbacks that will go off the board in the first two or three rounds.

Last question, if this checklist serves as Shanahan’s criteria, which of these quarterback appears to be the best fit for the Redskins?

I have to believe Tannehill naturally fits your checklist more than RGIII because he already possesses the techniques to manage a pocket and drop from center.

Tannehill does a good job of reducing the shoulder away from the oncoming edge rusher while climbing the pocket in a position to maintain throwing form with his eyes down field. Griffin is quicker, faster and capable of making off-balanced throws with velocity that can undermine a defensive scheme, but he tends to be more careless with the ball as a scrambler and more apt to make the types of high-risk throws that don’t fit into this criteria.

Tannehill might not be as explosive, but if you watched his first-half performance against Oklahoma State’s defense (which led the FBS in takeaways) you see a quarterback that is generally aggressive in a more structured and technical manner. Plus, Tannehill had a 65-yard touchdown run in the opening quarter on a zone read. You don’t do that against a fresh defense unless you have some athleticism.

While I love the upside Griffin brings because he has the potential to become a transcendent player, I think Tannehill has less downside when considering the two with your checklist in mind. We also have to remember that we haven’t observed their learning styles, psychological makeup and other behind the scenes/between the ears type of traits that can be just as important as what we see on the field.

Griffin’s charisma, intelligence, and great athleticism are difficult to pass up. However, Tannehill’s good fundamentals and underrated athleticism are also attractive.

I like the fact that Tannehill chose to come to A&M as a walk on because he wanted to play quarterback there despite the team not recruiting him at the position. Although he failed to win the starting quarterback job from Stephen McGee (now with Dallas) and Jerrod Johnson (now with Pittsburgh), Tannehill still had the confidence that he was the best quarterback.

However, he had the humility to switch to receiver and actually broke records at the position. Then he proved he was good enough to play quarterback at a high level once his opportunity came. That shows mental toughness. Hines Ward played running back, receiver, and quarterback for the University of Georgia because the team needed him to do so at different points. He’s been one of the most mentally tough players in the NFL.

I think Tannehill’s college story underscores his confidence, toughness, persistence and will to win. And no, you don’t play wide receiver at a high level in the Big 12 without being a heck of an athlete.

For more detailed breakdowns by Matt Waldman, check out hisĀ Rookie Scouting Portfolio. It’s easily the most comprehensive publication of NFL prospect analysis at the skill positions I’ve come across.


  1. Greg Hill
    February 22, 2012 at 9:27 am

    Great stuff! The question is not who’s at QB, but how the guys preform around the postion. Get someone who demands hard work and brings high energy.

  2. Percy.donaldson
    February 22, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    Well we cant lose with the top 3 Qbs. I personally want Rg3.But if we can trade down,Get Tannehill while picking two to three additional picks in the top 4 rounds im all for it.

  3. Josh
    February 23, 2012 at 7:38 am

    Before I read this article I was leaning towards Tannehill but after readding it I’m now all-in on him. Good stuff as usual.

  4. Jorge
    February 23, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    Rg3 won a Heisman and threw more touchdown and ran for more touchdowns then the same amount of games then tannehill did AND (even tho the same can be said about Texas A&M’s receivers) I can’t name one Baylor Receiver.

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