INDIANAPOLIS — While the New Orleans Saints won’t make a selection until a dozen picks later, the first player taken will play a role in the team’s outcomes for the foreseeable future.
The Saints will twice per year be granted a front-row seat to watch the development of whomever the Tampa Bay Buccaneers select with the first overall pick. And it’s likely that player will either be former Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston or Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.
The placement of quarterbacks at the top of this draft class brings about an interesting debate that reigns each year when young passers are trying to make the leap to the NFL. Since colleges often run offense that would be considered gimmicky or might not work at the professional level, teams are often forced to project how a player might perform in their system.
It will be less of an issue with Winston, who is coming out of an offense that has many pro-style elements, but the task is much taller with Mariota, who is coming out of a spread offense that is dissimilar to any system run in the NFL — outside of Chip Kelly’s offense in Philadelphia.
That means when teams are evaluating his tape, they often aren’t seeing him make the kind of throws he would be required to make in the NFL. Instead, they have to watch what he does well and then decide if those things can be stretched out to work within their own system.
It can be a challenge.
“It can be difficult to evaluate the different mechanics of the spread, but at the end of the day you have to be able to make those tight-window throws, have great ball placement,” Arizona Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim said. “There is a lot of projection involved, but that’s what we do for a living. It’s a projection-based business.”
But that projecting isn’t limited to determining whether a guy can make certain throws. Many quarterbacks entering the NFL in recent seasons have spent their entire careers in spread offenses. By the time they reach the NFL, they have little experiencing taking snaps under center, doing something other than a three-step drop, or making more than one read on a throw.
Some of these issues were prevalent at last month’s Senior Bowl, where some of the quarterbacks in practice looked uncomfortable taking the snap and then presented awkward footwork while dropping back.
Those things do not concern teams. In recent years, they’ve become accustomed to tearing down quarterbacks, teaching them the fundamentals required in their system, and then building them back up. But it is a process, and in today’s NFL, where rookie quarterbacks are not only expected to immediately start but thrive, that process can create complications.
The other aspect that has made it difficult for teams to evaluate quarterbacks is that many play in systems in which many of the play calls come from the sideline. This makes creates challenges for teams attempting to gauge a quarterback’s decision-making and ability to lead a huddle.
“It’s harder now — if you’re watching college football you see guys looking to the sidelines. Me, personally, I’ve made several mistakes in that regard,” Seahawks General Manager John Schneider said. “You may question a guy’s decision-making. You may evaluate higher just because of his intellectual level or what a good football guy he is. But you don’t truly know because they’re looking at the sidelines, looking at cards.”
Schneider said the way to solve this is to put in a large amount of work. They need to work harder to become familiar with a player and determine through other ways if the quarterback is able to process the information, express it to his teammates, and then read a defense.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever sat in a quarterback room, but it’s pretty intense stuff,” Schneider said. “It’s like learning a whole language. Just to think of those things those guys have to go through and how fast it comes at them.
“It’s hard to evaluate those players at the college level and you look at the sidelines when you’re at a game watching them play live and they’re looking at cards and it’s like turtles and colors and stuff.”
That’s what Tampa Bay will be up against the next few months if it decides to take a quarterback first. The Bucs will need to figure out if the guy they want at that position can play in their system and understand a playbook that isn’t filled with pictures of reptiles and various hues.
If they get it right, they’ll be on their way to bettering their standing in the NFC South and making life more difficult for the Saints. If they get it wrong, they could soon be going through this process again.