As a draft filled with uncertainty at the position approaches, there are lessons to be learned from the profiles of (relatively) recent quarterback busts.
Here are their stories.
The quarterback who wasn’t given an opportunity to stand up
We begin with a quarterback whose failure as a starter was out of his control.
David Carr was the first overall pick in 2002 for the expansion Houston Texans. As the quarterback of an expansion team he surely expected hard times over his first few seasons, but the extent of the pummeling he had to endure was career derailing.
In his rookie season Carr was sacked 76 times, a beating that still stands as the NFL’s single-season record. It only gets worse when you look just a little further down on that list. Of the top three most painful sack seasons for a quarterback, two of them belong to Carr. He was also sacked 68 times in 2005, crumbling 249 times in total during his five seasons as a Texan.
Carr never really had a fair chance to show the Houston brass what he could or couldn’t do. His story will always be a cautionary one for protection failure, and right now, the Miami Dolphins should pay particular attention. Ryan Tannehill was sacked 58 times this past season, and although the addition of Branden Albert was a fine start, more is needed along the offensive line through the draft if he’s to avoid a Carr-like demise.
The quarterback who sees pocket ghosts
The appeal of Blaine Gabbert was found in his accuracy, well-groomed mechanics, and surprising arm strength. Mike Mayock made a few now infamous proclamations based on those attributes after Gabbert’s Pro Day. While it’s easy to laugh heartily while looking back on them, remember that Mayock was hardly alone, and his observations reflected the dominant view at the time.
“He drives the ball with accuracy, he drives the ball with timing, and his arm strength is more than I expected. I’ve got no problem with that.”
“I think it was a better throwing mechanics workout than what Matt Ryan had. I thought it was very similar to Sam Bradford.”
“Bottom line: he’s the first quarterback off the board, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Carolina takes him at No. 1″
The pre-draft hesitation with Gabbert centered around his difficulty taking the snap from under center, something he rarely experienced at Missouri. The shotgun offers a natural cushion against an oncoming rush, and doesn’t ask a quarterback to drop back nearly as far while simultaneously avoiding pass rushers. It simplifies the process, or at least that’s the intention.
But even while in the shotgun for the Tigers, Gabbert would break down and scramble when it wasn’t necessary. On his tape there were numerous instances of a jittery quarterback seeking to escape the pocket while facing only a three-man rush.
Gabbert saw a danger when none was present. At the next level that lack of comfort led to disaster.
Kurt Warner has experience in such matters, and while assessing Gabbert he said a pocket presence is much more about mental toughness, and it’s not purely physical.
It’s not about him not being able to withstand hits, and be tough and fight through things. It’s more that mental side of things to go ‘Hey, I know I’m getting hit on this play, but I’ve got to hang in there and let the ball go and finish my throw so we can have success as a team.’ Again, it’s not an easy thing to do. Nobody likes to get hit, but that’s just one thing as a pocket passer that you have to be able to develop. And he has to grow in that area.
Three years later we’re still waiting for Gabbert to welcome the pocket as his home. Now he’s learning that in San Francisco, likely his last career stop.
The near-sighted quarterback
Of all the quarterback failures from the 2011 draft, the Minnesota Vikings selecting Christian Ponder at 12th overall was easily the most surprising.. At best he was thought of as a late first-round pick, and maybe even an early second rounder.
The problem was his accuracy when going deep. Balls that traveled a great distance did so in a wayward fashion.
Ponder has likely made his last start for the Vikings, and he’ll eventually either depart or continue in a backup role after 36 game appearances (35 starts) over three seasons. During two of those seasons his yards per completion was below 6.5, and it currently rests at 6.4 overall. During that time Ponder completed just 77 passes which resulted in a gain of 20 yards or more. For perspective, in 2013 five quarterbacks finished with at least 60 completions for +20 yards. At one point over a three-game stretch early in 2012, nearly 65 percent of Ponder’s completions travelled less than 10 yards.
In fairness, reliable deep options — or even receivers who could gain yards after the catch — have been scarce for Ponder between Percy Harvin’s injuries and the slowing Greg Jennings. Cordarrelle Patterson will more than fill that need going forward, but likely too late for Ponder’s employment in Minnesota.
There are others, of course, with JaMarcus Russell the example of a booming and therefore appealing arm which lacked an accurate compass. Or Tim Tebow, the great runner who could never ditch a wonky throwing motion.
In a class without a truly glistening golden boy QB, the hope is that the strengths of each top prospect will defeat any potentially crippling weakness. Or alternatively, said weakness can be solved through coaching.
If there’s a dominant lesson to be learned here, it’s that the quarterback bust risk is at its highest when a rookie is shoehorned into a system that doesn’t suit his skillset, as Gabbert was in Jacksonville. Or into an offense where he’s poorly supported, as Carr and Ponder were.
Ideally a first-round pick will have the talent to succeed quickly in any system. And if he doesn’t, he shouldn’t be a first-round pick.