INDIANAPOLIS – If it's going to happen, it will start here. If the 2016 NFL Draft is to come to be defined by the caliber of the quarterbacks it sends into the league – and also how many of the quarterbacks it sends to the league enter as first-round picks – the buzz will pick up steam based on what the prospects do during this Combine.
If there turn out to be several quarterback prospects who come out of this Combine/Pro Day period of the NFL calendar perceived as difference-making talents, then there could end up being a lot of action in the first round of the NFL Draft in late April. And a lot of quarterback action in the first round of any draft typically means better players become available to the teams not looking for a first-round-caliber quarterback prospect.
The Steelers would be one of those on the list of "teams not looking," and so they should be hoping that guys such as Carson Wentz of North Dakota State, and Jared Goff of California, and Paxton Lynch of Memphis, and Connor Cook of Michigan State, and Dak Prescott of Mississippi State, and maybe even Christian Hackenburg of Penn State will end up using this Combine as a start to the process of enticing teams to spend high draft picks on them.
There is some opinion already that four quarterbacks will end up being picked in the first round, and the four most likely candidates right now are Wentz, Goff, Lynch, and Cook, in no particular order. If Prescott and Hackenburg manage to get themselves into the top half of the second round, then that could mean six quarterbacks could be gone before the Steelers pick in the second round. That's six more position players who would be available, and maybe some of the positions those guys play are ones the Steelers are targeting. Call it a hidden, side benefit of already having a franchise quarterback.
But just as the Combine serves as an opportunity for these quarterbacks to showcase themselves and possibly improve the perception NFL scouts have of them, it's also a chance for scouts and coaches to pick apart their resumes. With Wentz, for example, it's going to be about the level of competition, because even though the North Dakota State Bison is a program that won 13 national championships and 32 conference championships, with Wentz posting a 20-3 record as a starter for the Bison and playing well for the team when it won the 2014 and 2015 FCS national championship games, the level of competition is a full notch below the Southeastern Conference, for example.
"You're going to start with his physical skill-set, and then the lower the competition level, the more he should dominate," said General Manager Kevin Colbert about how the NFL compensates in its evaluations. "A player at any position at any level, if he's playing Division III, Division II, Division I-AA, there's a step in between each of those levels, and of course the NFL is another step. That doesn't mean great players can't come from those levels. We've seen a Joe Flacco playing at the University of Delaware, and he's obviously a great NFL quarterback, but it may take them a little bit longer. Those types of players can certainly develop if they have the right skill-set."
Wentz played in an offense that had him taking some snaps from under center, and that alone could give him an advantage over a major college quarterback who operated solely from the shotgun, for example. The other qualification, because the guy plays quarterback, is going to be performing in clutch situations, which can require an exceptional amount of mental toughness..
"You watch them in tough situations," said Colbert about the attempt made to gauge mental toughness and project it to the NFL level. "Sometimes, you'll evaluate them more on third downs, you'll evaluate the throws they're making when the pocket is breaking down and things are going on around their feet that aren't real pleasant. Or maybe you look at them at the end of the half or the end of the game – can they rally their team? One stat we keep track of is how many comeback wins a team has with the guy at quarterback, but then again if he's on a great team, he might not have a lot of opportunities because they're blowing people out. But if a guy has a lot of comeback wins on his resume that helps."
Another issue with the NFL in the evaluation of quarterbacks is the proliferation of the spread offense, and not only at the college level but also down to high school. If it hasn't happened already, the NFL is going to be presented with quarterbacks who maybe haven't ever even recited a play to teammates in a huddle. Now, the whole offense looks to the sideline where coaches will hold up cards, sometimes with cartoon characters on them, and then everybody knows the play, they line up with the quarterback in the shotgun, and on the count of two the ball is snapped. No exposure to football terminology whatsoever.
"There are fewer pro offenses in college football," said Colbert, "but I've said this forever, the colleges have to do what they have to do for their programs to try to win games. Some run a pro-style offense and some don't. It doesn't mean their players may not be NFL prospects, but they may just not be as ready. Every rookie coming in at the quarterback position is going to face a huge change, with some kids it's just taking snaps under center, because they haven't done that a great deal in college. So that's just the first challenge. There are obviously successful quarterbacks that come out of spread offenses. It just may take a little bit longer."
Joe Flacco is the champion of the lower-level-of-competition crowd, and Marcus Mariota is evidence that a spread offense quarterback can transition to the NFL style in a timely fashion. Starting with the Combine, if enough teams convince themselves they see another Flacco and/or Mariota in this group of prospects, the top of the first round of the draft could be very interesting. And the Steelers could end up benefitting from that.