Drafting Quarterbacks: An Historical Perspective Part I

How do teams know which quarterback prospects they can confidently invest a draft pick in? How do these QBs manage the jump from the college to pro level? Join Doc Bear as he breaks it down.

One of the most important abilities of a general manager, coach, coordinator or scout is the ability to analyze talent. Each of these professions needs to understand what a players strengths are, what their weaknesses are, and what they should and shouldn't be expected to be able to do. It's particularly important — and difficult — when it comes to talking about quarterbacks.

What is it that makes a quarterback successful? How can you develop an understanding of how effective a player will be in two, three and five or more years? Why is it, historically, that so many quarterbacks have failed to make the leap from college to the NFL?

College

Every quarterbacks coach knows that most players at the college level are not really trained in a pro style of offense. The game is very different at the NFL professional level — faster, more complex, more difficult and far more stressful.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, college training for offensive linemen doesn’t really prepare them for the NFL. That’s equally true for QBs. That’s a rough pairing. One quarterback who hadn’t worked under center commented loftily before the draft, “How hard can that be?" He’s no longer in the league.

For the QB, years of practice at reading defenses from under center remains a massively difficult undertaking.  A QB who wants to make the jump will be practicing footwork until it is second nature. He’ll work on the mechanics of throwing, developing a feel for the pocket, and gaining an understanding of the defensive tendencies of 32 teams. Many have playbooks nearly the size of an encyclopedia.

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Having four additional years of practice at playing a game that mirrors the skills and abilities of the game at the NFL level is a huge advantage. That’s mostly true of college, but it’s accurate even for high school QBs. If a young man wants to be an NFL QB, he should look at the ‘pro-style’ schools and/or highly visible programs. It’s like preparing for any career.

Even for the most prepared QBs, the jump to the pros can be overwhelming. Information processing speed (IPS) is what’s essential. The QB position requires a IPS that is as high as possible. Just the ability to run a huddle is huge. Calling the adjustments that prepare the team pre-snap is far more complex than most fans are aware.

That's what has made players like Peyton Manning so remarkable. Manning also had certain advantages, both genetic and in his training. He’s also as hardworking as any player in the game. His practice habits are incredible. It showed when he stepped onto the field on game day.

The Draft

If a player comes from high school and college systems where they rarely, if ever, play under center, it means eight years of training in proper footwork, mechanics and the skills that he will need under center are missed. Each of those areas is a major undertaking.

This can place the quarterback coming into the pros in a difficult position. Sometimes, the QB can overcome that, other times, he cannot. Despite constant attempts at developing systems for scouting draftable QBs the approaches often fail.

I  broke the draft down by decades. From the creation of the first draft by then-Philadelphia owner Bert Bell in the 1930s, the draft has been an exercise in evolution. The '30s and '40s saw repeated changes in the draft.

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How many rounds should there be? How many players offered? What special circumstances do you create for expansion teams, losing teams, failing teams? How do you decide which players to draft, anyway?

Late in the '40s, a man named Eddie Korval tried to solve that question. He brought innovations that would change the face of the league.

The experiences of World War II and the return of the veterans, many of whom were willing to pick up a (small) paycheck for playing football saw the creation of a rival league. The All-American Football Conference was well funded and dangerous to the NFL. At the end of the 1940s, the leagues realized that they could not afford to bid against each other. They merged to establish financial stability.

Even in the 1950s, most franchises were still just reading magazines like Street and Smith's to choose their players. Korval established a lifestyle that is still common to NFL scouts today. He was on the road about 200 days out of the year. He typed up his notes at night in his hotel room.

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He established connections at many of the major universities and got the drop on the less-informed teams. Koval would bring in a huge stack of folders containing information on players from all over the country. It worked.

1960 saw the first use of a computer to compile and organize draft information — three teams went in on a single computer, because they were expensive and after all, who would ever need one of their own? It took four years to develop a program, but it was used in the 1964 draft.

It’s usually accepted that in 1971 the first Combine was held, but by only three teams. The experience of the Combine, much as we know it now, was started in 1979. Over the past 46 years, players without number astounded at the Combine and failed on the field, while others tested poorly and later made the Hall of Fame.

Others were hailed and succeeded. No magic wand for predicting the future was discovered. Roughly 40 candidates of the 300 who attend the Combine will have successful careers. There are smaller regional Combines as well.  

To this day, many players who seem to have few flaws cannot make the jump to pro football. Others have overcome those flaws and for some reason, not always understood, revert to them under the stresses of the game. Some succeed against all odds and beliefs. No one has ever gotten all of them right, nor will they. Even Coach Bill Walsh, historically one of the best quarterbacks coaches, had QBs who just didn’t make it.

How do you maximize your results to find a quarterback? We’ll solve it next time in Part II.

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Doc Bear is a Featured Columnist for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @DocBearOMD.

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