On a frigid December day in 2010, rookie quarterback Colt McCoy gingerly trotted onto the snow-covered field. The young signal caller had shown a good deal of promise in his first couple NFL starts but now faced a far tougher test: in addition to taking on a tough Ravens defense, he was forced to cope with a bum ankle that sapped his mobility and blustery conditions that tested his arm strength.
The day began on a positive note, with Colt leading the offense to back-to-back first downs. Unfortunately, things quickly fell apart. As if on cue, the right side of the offensive line collapsed, with Pork Chop Womack getting rag-dolled by Ravens defensive lineman Corey Redding. As the defensive tackle converged on a hobbled Colt, McCoy threw a desperation deep ball towards Mohamed Massaquoi. Instead of reaching its intended target, the ugly floater landed in the hands of cornerback Lardarius Webb. By the end of the day, McCoy had dished out two more interceptions in what was an ugly loss for the Browns and a dispiriting game for the young QB.
The game marked an unfortunate turning point in Colt's tenure as the Browns' starting quarterback. Afterwards, defenses would begin to creep up to the line of scrimmage, throwing an army of blitzers at a quarterback who struggled to handle pressure and hit his receivers deep. However, it also provides a blueprint for what the team should look for in Colt's competition and/or replacement. To succeed against the Ravens or Steelers in December, a quarterback must possess the arm strength to cut through blustery winds and the mobility to elude pressure thrown in his face. As a result, if the Browns are going to go searching for another young quarterback, they should not go discount shopping on physical tools.
Fortunately for the squad, the top three QBs in this year's draft all possess near-proto-typical AFC North tools. All three deliver the ball with good zip and can make plays with their feet. After that, their skill sets widely differ: while Andrew Luck relies on an uncanny ability to decipher defense and anticipate the action, Robert Griffin III relies more on improvisation and special playmaking ability. Ryan Tannehill, on the other hand, offers more of a blank canvass without proven elite characteristics. While the others are great prospects, the A&M quarterback is a very good project.
Naturally, the best fit for the Browns is the consensus top overall prospect in the draft, Andrew Luck. It's tough to issue any superlatives that haven't already been repeated over and over about the Stanford signal caller. At a surprisingly athletic 6'4", 235 lbs., Luck possesses the mobility to escape incoming rushers and the poise to step up in the pocket and create functional space to throw. However, what truly makes him stand out among his college peers is that he's already shown the ability to handle the rigors of leading a pro-style offense. He possesses the anticipation to throw wide receivers open, all the while delivering a very catchable ball. He can thread the needle in between defenders, but he also knows when to take some speed off of his fastball, hitting his receivers in stride. Both mentally and physically, he's a close to ideal fit for what the Browns need.
Luck did look surprisingly human later in the year when deprived of his big play threat Chris Owusu -- a helpful reminder that even the best quarterback to come out of the college ranks in a decade isn't a one player panacea. Mr. Luck should be the face of a franchise for the next ten to fifteen years, but he'll struggle early on if surrounded by inferior talent. Hopefully, if the Browns somehow manage to trade up for the draft's top prize, they won't give up so much draft ammo that it would be difficult to build a strong cockpit around him.
If trading up all the way to #1 overall is as expectedly impossible, the Browns still will have an intriguing option in Robert Griffin III. The Baylor Bear has dramatically improved over the last few years, making the transition from being a semi-scattershot thrower to an efficient passer who's accurate on all three levels. Indeed, of all the top quarterback prospects, the strong-armed Griffin delivers the most accurate deep ball. He also displays impressive accuracy throwing on the move. Whether it's just a half-second before getting hit, stepping out of bounds, or traipsing past the line of scrimmage, Griffin keeps his eyes downfield and rockets the ball downfield. As a result, teams facing Griffin are forced to defend every blade of grass.
While it's impossible not to be intrigued by RG3's physical tools, some have questioned whether his skills will translate well to an NFL offense, particularly a timing-based West Coast Offense. Those concerns are understandable: the spread offense that Griffin ran at Baylor did not ask him to handle much of the important task of reading defenses. And at this point, he appears much more comfortable working from the shotgun. His footwork still very much is a work in progress, leading to some errant passes when throwing underneath.
Nevertheless, Griffin's track record both off and on the field indicates that he will be able to overcome his current weaknesses. An academic superstar and a diligent worker, Griffin has the smarts and work ethic necessary to smooth over the rough edges of his game. He's already proven to be a tough competitor who isn't afraid to stand tall in the pocket and take more than his share of punishment; he won't shy away from the challenge of becoming a top-flight NFL QB.
Moreover, the tweaks that could be made to ease Griffin's transition into the Browns' offense are precisely the ones that should be made to the team's passing attack. The team's staid, conservative offense hit a wall last fall, with some commentators pointing to the "pure" West Coast Offense's predictability. To keep defenses off balance, the team needs to add a vertical component to its passing game, which Griffin's particularly well-suited to deliver. Even incorporating some of the zone read run plays from Baylor's offense wouldn't be a bad move. As we saw in the playoffs, a quarterback who brings a credible running threat can give the Steelers' defense fits.
If the team's decision-makers want to continue to run a pure WCO, they may be especially intrigued by Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Indeed, much of the Browns' offense would look familiar to Tannehill. Under the guidance of head coach Mike Sherman, Tannehill was introduced to the West Coast's concepts and verbiage. In addition, he began the process of adapting his raw skills to that offense.
Unsurprisingly, the former wide receiver moves very well for a guy his size. He displays good footwork dropping back from under center and easily sidesteps pressure. He's also been known to break off a long run or two. Fortunately, his athleticism is paired with a strong arm, which he deploys to fit the ball in tight windows. Though he's been inconsistent with his downfield accuracy, he possesses the tools to threaten all three levels of the defense.
Nevertheless, the West Coast-coached quarterback has just as much work to do as his spread offense counterparts. At this point, Tannehill struggles to go through his progressions: when his first read isn't open, he'll get panicky in the pocket and throw blind into coverage. The issue was exacerbated by his number one target Jeff Fuller's struggles. When Tannehill would force the ball in Fuller's direction, the wide-out would show less than ideal effort fighting for the rock. And when Tannehill went elsewhere, he'd often end up making ill-advised throws.
One disconcerting aspect of Tannehill's tape is that one can't see a linear progression in his play. He didn't improve as the season went along. In fact, one could argue that he regressed late in the year. Matched up against tougher defenses, he more often threw blind into double (and even triple) coverage. Statistically, his three worst passer ratings of the season came in his final five games.
As a result, the relatively inexperienced Tannehill would be the biggest project of the three quarterbacks. While that may scare off other teams, the quarterback gurus in Berea may see an opportunity to take a raw clay prospect and turn him into signal caller gold. If afforded the opportunity to sit and learn, Tannehill very well could live up to his plus tools upside. And as with Luck and Griffin, those physical tools make him a great fit for leading an offense in the AFC North.